"Without a doubt, the initiative got legs in this office," says Chamber President Rob Guidry. "We worked every level of government on all this, and gradually the feds started believing us."
And while the southern leg upgrade of U.S. Highway 90 to an interstate is still a long way from reality, the fruits of their labor, $259 million, came in late July as part of a record highway and mass transit bill passed by Congress. Securing the money meant garnering support from a multi-state region, and Louisiana was a key player. Though only $59 million is for the buildout of the southern portion, it may be enough to keep the project going until a new transportation bill comes up in six years, says Lafayette businessman Bill Fenstermaker, chairman of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's I-49 South Task Force ' and one of the chamber's staunchest I-49 proponents.
Money is coming from the state as well. Last week, Blanco signed into law a bill that dedicates the use of unclaimed property to secure bonds for I-49. State Treasurer John Kennedy was the architect of that initiative.
Still, I-49 south is $1 billion away from accommodating its first travelers. "I don't think it's a catastrophe not having the money now," Fenstermaker says, noting that environmental impact studies are already under way. "You can get a lot done. The rights of way can be purchased, the engineering ' everything that's necessary to build a highway. I think they'll use the money we get to set ourselves up."
Fenstermaker maintains I-49 north, extending the roadway from Shreveport to Arkansas (where it will unite with two other interstates to reach Canada) got the lion's share of funds because it hasn't run into opposition and has already secured some rights of way. "The ones that are ready to go get the dollars first," he says.
The north has not had to fight the same battles as the south, according to Fenstermaker. The Concerned Citizens Coalition, a local group opposing the I-49 Connector, joined forces with the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic and filed a federal lawsuit in 2003 over a proposed elevated portion of the project that takes it through Evangeline Thruway, the Sterling Grove National Historic District and Beaver Park. "For years, officials have ignored the citizens' pleas for I-49 to loop around Lafayette, refusing to study a less destructive route which could halve the cost of the project and be built in a third of the time," said CCC's Kelly Caldwell when the group filed suit. "Instead, they approve a plan that severs our community and places the burden on our oldest neighborhoods and most vulnerable populations," added Caldwell, who lives in a turn-of-the-century home in Sterling Grove. The group's primary argument is that the project violates historic preservation law and that the Federal Highway Administration has failed to consider an alternative eastern bypass route.
"The litigation has had an effect," says Fenstermaker. "We weren't ready."
The CCC lost two court battles and on Aug. 5 asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for a re-hearing of all the judges on the grounds that its June 2005 ruling conflicts with its own precedent.
"It's a delay tactic," Fenstermaker says. He and other chamber leaders remain undeterred. "We're a bunch of hard-headed people," he says.
The chamber's involvement in I-49 took root in 1992 under the chairmanship of banker Rusty Cloutier. His successor, banker Rae Robinson, formed the first local task force, and Fenstermaker continued to carry the torch. Along the way they brought in support from New Iberia, Franklin, Houma, Morgan City and New Orleans and then moved north to Shreveport (now home to the International I-49 Coalition) and on to Arkansas and Missouri, traveling throughout the region to talk to ' and win over ' anyone who would give them an audience. "They all took their turn pushing that ball up the hill," Guidry says.
Every small victory helped sustain the momentum, says Cloutier, noting that some politicians were even willing to set aside their own agendas to jump on board. For example, Franklin Mayor Sam Jones made a public commitment to sacrifice projects in his city for I-49 and then put "I-49 South" bumper stickers on every public vehicle in Franklin.
The chamber latched on to the project for three reasons: highway safety, hurricane evacuation, and jobs in the form of economic development opportunities the new interstate corridor will create. "The primary reason for me was the death toll on that highway," Fenstermaker says. "That and Hurricane Andrew, when we saw the traffic backed up [in 1992]."
A powerful political entity, the chamber group had a hand in getting one of its own, then-UL engineering department head Dr. Kam Movassaghi (who now works for Fenstermaker), into the top seat at DOTD in 1998. Just a year before, Gov. Mike Foster had appointed the first statewide I-49 South Task Force, naming as its chair Carl Bauer, a fervent I-49 activist. Bauer, who served in the state House and Senate from 1966 to 1976 and has been UL Lafayette's coordinator of government relations since the early 1990s, proved invaluable to the chamber's effort, as he had spent much of his public career pushing to make U.S. Highway 90 a four-lane roadway.
Along with consolidation of city and parish governments, Guidry, who's been with the chamber for nearly three decades, ranks I-49 as the most important initiative the business organization has ever undertaken. At times, it's also placed the local group in the state and national spotlight. Five years ago Guidry and Fenstermaker testified about the importance of the project to a U.S. House committee on transportation, and because I-49 became a multi-state effort, it also was largely responsible for Guidry being named State Chamber of Commerce Executive of the Year in 2003 and again in 2004.
Though no longer the pipe dream former DOTD secretary Frank Denton called it, I-49 south still has hurdles to jump. But Guidry is confident in the chamber's resolve. The chamber exec says politicians and groups opposed to the project have built obstacles at every turn but compares the chamber's efforts with those of a tireless canine.
"We'd run out and get the stick and bring it back, and they would be astounded," he says. "Then they'd toss it farther. But we never went away."
High-profile criminal defense attorney Daniel Stanford awaits his fate in the Curious Goods conspiracy trial.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is set to put the kibosh on the legal ownership of monkeys trained to help the disabled, and the agency wants to know what you think.
A federal judge on Thursday asked lawyers battling over Louisiana's new, restrictive abortion law for an agreement that apparently could let clinics stay open — at least for a while — after the law takes effect Sept. 1.
An abortion rights organization wants a federal judge to block enforcement of Louisiana's new abortion law while its lawsuit to overturn the law makes its way through court.
Republican presidential prospects Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal are planning to speak at an Iowa Christian conservative event in September.
The attention surrounding Victor White III has spiked with the release of last week’s autopsy report, which has raised a number of serious questions about the night of his death and has put the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office under an increased wave of scrutiny as more national media outlets are jumping on the story, most recently seenh on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.
Thursday's Blogs from the Bog!
Dogs get back-to-school blues; mother pleads for release of journalist; ice bucket challenge and more national and international news for Thursday, August 28, 2014.
A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.
The Discovery Channel has canceled reality TV star Will Hayden's popular "Sons of Guns" show after his arrest on an aggravated rape charge.
The LPSB will finally hear from the attorney it hired to investigate the superintendent at a special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.
Authorities are investigating a report that a student there warned the principal of impending violence similar to that depicted in the movie "The Purge."
Saints cornerback Champ Bailey has played for more than a handful of playoff teams during a career that has seen him selected to 12 Pro Bowls.
Police say a 56-year-old Lafayette man walking behind a dump truck died when the truck hit him as it was backing up.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a proud papa of new baby girl.
The books on Louisiana's last budget year have been closed, but it took a bit of borrowing from this year to make the numbers work.
The Iberia Parish Coroner responded Monday to the attention surrounding the questionable shooting of Victor White III, a black man from New Iberia who died April 2 while in the custody of local law enforcement.
Two months after lawmakers agreed to create a $40 million higher education incentive fund, no decisions have been made about how to divide the money.
With Drew Brees back healthy, the New Orleans Saints are free to work on the little things that can make the difference between a Super Bowl run and something less.
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and her lead GOP challenger Congressman Bill Cassidy are running close when it comes to money. Landrieu has $5.5 million to Cassidy’s $5.6 million in the bank.
With expectations mounting that Gov. Bobby Jindal will soon announce his campaign for president, attention is turning to not only who he will bring along with him but also what will transpire politically back home during the transition.
Seven of the 11 U.S. cities in a new ranking of “most dangerous diets” are in the Bayou and Lone Star states, but the ranking is more about poverty than fried oysters.
Lafayette police are investigating a fatal shooting involving an alleged burglar and homeowner.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham got the message from the NFL. He's not dunking footballs over goal posts any more.
With qualifying over, the start of campaign season is official, and for the Lafayette Parish School Board, the race toward Nov. 4 will pit 20 candidates in battles for all 9 of the district’s available seats.