LAFAYETTE — A forum held Thursday on the prospects of completing Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans offered little hope of federal or state money for the project anytime in the near future.
Funding has remained the major roadblock for several years, and the current budget problems at the state and federal level dim the chances even further for I-49 backers, some of whom are now looking to tolls.
“We can’t afford $5 billion to finish this,” Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Deputy Secretary Eric Kalivoda told a meeting of the Acadiana Regional Alliance on Thursday.
The regional development coalition brought together Kalivoda; U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and local officials for a forum titled “The Future of I-49 South.”
“The funding is a real challenge,” Boustany said.
Kalivoda said completing I-49 remains a top priority for the state, and much work has been done in recent years to upgrade U.S. 90 to interstate standards in parts of Iberia, St. Mary and Lafayette parishes, including new frontage roads and overpasses.
But most expensive segments of the project have been stalled — the estimated $1.1 billion for the stretch through Lafayette and the estimated $3.6 billion for the 36-mile portion from Raceland to New Orleans.
The $1.1 billion for Lafayette includes $700 million for the so-called “I-49 connector,” a mostly elevated section that would roughly follow the current path of Evangeline Thruway.
Kalivoda said the connector is particularly difficult to complete because it cannot be broken down into small, financially manageable projects that can be completed over several years.
The strategy of piecing together overpasses, frontage roads and other upgrades as funding becomes available has been used to bring most of U.S. 90 up to interstate standards in Iberia and St. Mary parishes.
“The hard nut to crack in Lafayette is the $700 million connector, because it’s hard to break it into pieces,” Kalivoda said.
Even in relation to big road projects, $700 million would be a massive project for Louisiana.
The figure represents about 20 times what Lafayette City-Parish Government plans to spend next year on building, maintaining and repairing all roads parish-wide.
One funding option now being explored by I-49 supporters is toll revenue.
The Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway Commission has commissioned a study on the feasibility of using tolls to finish building I-49.
The results are expected later this year.
The Expressway Commission, which was created by the Legislature in 2003, has the legal authority to collect tolls and oversee road construction projects if the group decided to pursue that path.
But the tolling option could be a challenge.
“That becomes more of a political issue,” Boustany said.
Kalivoda said that he feels that “people like to talk about tolls in concept, when they think somebody else is going to pay them.”
Expressway Commission member Elaine Abell and other commission members have argued that the public is more receptive to the idea of tolls than in the past, especially if tolls offer the only way to complete I-49.