People still ask Bodi White if he thinks the Comite River Diversion Canal is really going to happen.

His voice catching, the state senator from Central said that after decades of frustration, of fighting for money and taxing the locals, construction will begin at last.

“It’s been a long road,” White said. “I think people can rest assured it’s finally gonna happen.”

Then he symbolically broke ground on the channel.

The Comite River Diversion Canal proposal first gained steam after the devastating flood of 1983. The canal would redirect high water from the Comite and several bayous in northern East Baton Rouge Parish into the Mississippi River during an emergency.

Following the historic flood of 2016, fresh calls for funding finally resulted in $343 million in federal dollars to complete the diversion canal. Officials have been relocating utilities, preparing to build bridges and making other plans but on Wednesday local, state and federal leaders turned dirt signifying the beginning of the construction of the canal itself.

"This is one of the really good mornings that you look forward to for a long time," Gov. John Bel Edwards said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have laid out an aggressive construction schedule that would see the 12-mile canal built by summer 2021.

Some elected leaders are already looking to what’s next.

State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, has started asking about Darlington Reservoir, said Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. The reservoir, which would store water on the East Feliciana-St. Helena parish line was also considered in the 1980s but also stalled out.

Whether it’s Darlington, more work on the Comite or some other project, “we cannot stop,” said Congressman Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge.

“This is the way government is supposed to work. … This project is a no-brainer. We’re gonna pay one way or the other,” Graves continued.

Senator Bill Cassidy also emphasized that spending on the diversion and other flood control projects is still cheaper in the long run than the cost of recovering after a disaster. A stitch in time saves nine, he reminded reporters before Wednesday’s press conference started.

Residents who have been paying the 2.41-mill property tax for nearly 20 years will also get some relief, since once the canal is halfway complete, they’ll begin qualifying for discounts on flood insurance, Cassidy pointed out.

Officials weren’t sure exactly when they’d be able to hit the midway mark. U.S. Army Corps Col. Michael Clancy warned that “construction is not going to be easy,” and will require digging the channel plus relocating pipelines and other utilities and creating bridges over the canal for cars and trains.

Wednesday’s event was held on the yet-to-open bypass road drivers will use while state crews build a new U.S. 61 bridge to go over the canal near U.S. 61.

In addition to a flood control structure on the Comite River, plans call for similar infrastructure on White Bayou, Cypress Bayou and Bayou Baton Rouge. Another was built on Lilly Bayou for $32 million more than a decade ago, but without the canal in place, it’s little more than a “bathtub that does nothing,” Graves said.

Once the diversion canal is up and running, East Baton Rouge Parish will oversee maintenance.

Like many of Wednesday’s speakers Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome remarked on the bipartisan support needed to finally get the canal built. She specifically thanked White — her onetime rival for the mayor’s office — whom she recalled fighting for the canal back when they were both in the legislature together.

Even Amite River Basin Commission President Ben Babin had moments when he wasn’t sure the diversion would ever materialize.

The commission is in charge of levying the local tax, but there were lean years when it looked like the project wouldn’t get the necessary federal funding, yet all the Louisiana officials were able to band together, he said.

“We’re all on the same sheet of music,” Babin said. “We back up the rest of these people 100 percent.”

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.