GONZALES — Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez says the parish will find the money to build a four-lane alternate route from Lamar-Dixon Expo Center after the project failed to win a federal grant on which parish officials had pinned their hopes.
Beginning in January, Martinez pressed the Ascension Parish Council for $1.2 million to pay for expedited design and engineering plans so the project would be “shovel ready” when the parish’s application for the TIGER Discretionary Grant program was approved.
But the one-mile, $12 million road to Lamar-Dixon was not among the projects the U.S. Department of Transportation said earlier this month would be funded through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Discretionary Grant program.
“This is not going to stop this project from becoming a reality,” Martinez said Tuesday. “I think we’re going to find some way to fund this project.”
The proposed road would tie South St. Landry Avenue, which dead-ends at Lamar-Dixon, to La. 44 and the Interstate 10 interchange at Burnside. The road, which would cut through wetlands, would connect South St. Landry Avenue with the main road in the Edenborne mixed-use development that empties onto La. 44 near I-10.
Louisiana was awarded grants for three projects from the TIGER program’s pot of $600 million nationwide, including nearly $1.8 million to plan for the re-establishment of some kind of transit system along Nicholson Boulevard in Baton Rouge.
The DOT website says the grants are for road, rail, transit and port projects “that promise to achieve critical national objectives.”
The parish-owned Lamar-Dixon is a 247-acre multiuse livestock and events complex near Gonzales and I-10 that has served as a hub for hurricane response in Louisiana.
Martinez said the engineering and design plans will be finished by November, giving Ascension a shovel-ready project for which parish officials can seek other funding sources.
“I’m still very positive about this project,” Martinez said.
He said that in addition to working with U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, on speaking with DOT officials, one possible funding source could come through the five-parish Baton Rouge Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Jamie Setze, executive director of the Capital Region Planning Commission, which is designated as Baton Rouge’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the Lamar-Dixon connector was among 17 projects vying for about $12 million in federal money this year.
“We are reviewing and scoring the projects,” Setze said Tuesday.
He said the elected officials who serve on the MPO, including Martinez and Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux, decide how that money is spent each year.
When Martinez was pushing through spending parish dollars for design and engineering plans, a few on the council worried the expense would divert road money for an uncertain grant.
Councilman Todd Lambert, who recently was installed as chairman of the Parish Council Transportation Committee, was among those who raised those questions.
Lambert noted Wednesday that it took the parish and legislators 15 years to get enough state and federal dollars to widen La. 42 in Prairieville to four and five lanes. The project is now underway.
“That’s why I really doubted that we could get something that quick, you know, within six months or a year,” Lambert said. “You just don’t get that kind of money overnight, even if it’s grant money.”
But a majority of the council sided with Martinez as he, Sheriff Jeff Wiley and others pitched the connector then as an important safety valve for traffic that builds up on Lamar-Dixon’s dead-end main access road and on highways feeding that road.
Major events at Lamar-Dixon, such as this weekend’s Ascension Hot Air Balloon Festival and high school graduations, can cause backups on nearby La. 30 and even I-10 as thousands try to funnel in and out of the complex. Sometimes parish officials, as they will this weekend, open up a second entrance from Ashland Road on the west side of Lamar-Dixon.
Martinez has said the connector with a short addition could relieve rush-hour traffic on Ashland Road, which workers in the parish’s industrial sector use daily to reach chemical plants along River Road.
Doug Hecox, DOT spokesman, said he could not say why the Ascension project was denied a grant, but he noted that the 797 grant applications submitted nationwide sought $9.5 billion in projects, 15 times more money than was available this year.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.