Contractors discuss work on relocating a petroleum pipeline Thursday, July 18, 2019, along U.S. 61 southeast of Port Hudson. The pipeline is being relocated to make way for the future Comite River Diversion Canal.

Officials have secured a contract for what they call the biggest hurdle for the long-awaited Comite River Diversion Canal project.

The $55 million contract, announced late Thursday, will allow for the construction of two new bridges — at U.S. 61 and the Kansas City Southern Railroad — as well as the excavation and construction of the canal from U.S. 61 to the Lilly Bayou Control Structure.

The contract was awarded to Baton Rouge-based company James Construction from a field of three competitive bidders.

The Comite River Diversion Canal project has been in the works for decades to help in flood mitigation. It would divert Comite River water toward the Mississippi River and away from the Amite River, and potentially spare downriver communities in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes from higher water.

Officials have for more than a year been relocating utilities in preparation for the bridge construction. The project drew $343 million in federal money after the 2016 floods boosted efforts to build the canal.

The awarding of the $55 million contracts to build the two bridges marks an important milestone in the project as it will quite literally pave the way for the canal to run where it needs to beneath U.S. 61.

“This is one of the most important components to move forward. … One of the challenges in previous years is that you can’t partially start working on Highway 61, you need the money upfront, so we’re pretty excited,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ricky Boyett said.

After a symbolic groundbreaking on the 12-mile canal project in April of last year, though, not much else has happened.

Initially, construction was scheduled for completion in summer of 2021, then it was set for completion by late September 2021. With utility work and real estate acquisition talks stalling progress, Boyett said Friday the projected completion date is now more like late 2021.

U.S. Congressman Garret Graves also projected the late 2021 timeline in a news release about the bridge construction contract Thursday night.

“Under the current construction schedule, we will have better flood protection by the end of next year,” he said in the statement.

If officials can stick with the late 2021 timeline, Graves’ office says Livingston, Ascension and East Baton Rouge authorities could request map revisions from FEMA that would result in lower flood insurance premiums the year after.

The latest timeline for the project has the physical completion of the Kansas City Southern and U.S. 61 bridge in September or October 2021 and the completion of “drop structures” around the same time. Drop structures would mean flood-risk bayous could begin draining into the canal before the overall project is completed, so Zachary and Baker communities could receive flood reduction benefits earlier than communities farther south. 

The final project is expected to be completed by the end of December 2021 when the Comite River is connected to the canal.

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