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Comite River is pictured as Tropical Storm Barry approaches on Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Kansas City Southern railroad is asking for at least $5 million to resolve the latest delay for completion of the Comite River Diversion Canal, state and federal officials said Thursday.

Rep. Valerie Hodges, R-Denham Springs and chairwoman of a task force studying the issue, said the figure was used in a letter from KCS officials dated Aug. 2.

Hodges, other state lawmakers and leaders of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly expressed frustration over the holdup.

"I think it is unreasonable to stop a project like this that is affecting hundreds of thousands of people," said Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and vice chairman of the Comite River Diversion Canal Task Force.

While the impasse has gone on for weeks, the meeting marked the first time that a cost estimate was put on resolving the issue.

The dispute is over how much the corps will pay the railroad to maintain a new bridge carrying railroad tracks that will extend over the canal.

Corps officials said they are awaiting updated cost estimates from KCS leaders, possibly by the end of next  week, and are hopeful for a resolution soon.

In the meantime, they said, the dispute is blocking work on a key part of the $343 million project, which will extend 12 miles.

The Corps has offered to maintain and repair the new bridge for 50 years, the longest period allowed by law.

The disagreement is how much money from the federal government -- presumably a onetime payment to the railroad -- should accompany that pledge.

Bobby Duplantier, the Corps' senior manager on the project, said the nearly $5 million would only cover costs to maintain parts of the bridge, not the entire structure.

"We are still looking at the numbers," Duplantier told the task force.

Aside from the railroad dispute, he said, major progress is being made on utility relocation and other work connected with the canal.

KCS would also continue operations while the bridge is being constructed.

"We have taken a lot of steps to make sure we don't interfere with commerce," Duplantier said.

KCS officials were invited to the meeting but did not send a representative, which also irritated task force members.

White noted that the railroad has had lobbyists in the hallways of the State Capitol for years.

The letter is signed by Warren K. Erdman, executive vice president for administration and corporate affairs at KCS.

It was addressed to federal and state officials.

Erdman said the railroad "is willing to cooperate fully with the project provided KCSR is not required to absorb costs of this public benefit project."

"Like any project, that bridge would require regular inspection, periodic maintenance and repair and eventually replacement," Erdman wrote.

KCSR stands for The Kansas City Southern Railway Company.

The new bridge, financed by the federal government, would cost between $15 million and $30 million.

It would run parallel to another bridge on U. S. 61 near Zachary.

The canal would siphon water from the Comite River, sending it to the Mississippi River.

The Comite is a tributary of the Amite River.

Experts have said that, if the canal had been in place, damage during the 2016 flood would have been less extensive.

Hodges, who lost her home during the flood three years ago, said forecasts of heavy storms that accompanied Hurricane Barry in July point up the need for fast action on the canal.

"People were hysterical," Hodges said of the weather turbulence last month. "We were told it was going to be worse than the 2016 flood."

"We cannot afford to waste any more time with bureaucracy," she added. 

"Really, lives are at stake," Hodges said. "That flood in 2016 was as close to hell as I hope I ever get."

The canal has been planned for more than a quarter of a century.

The longtime obstacle -- how to fund it -- was resolved last year when Congress authorized the $343 million, seemingly paving the way for completion by 2021.

"We are ready to go but we have one more hangup," said Paul Sawyer, chief of staff for U. S. Rep. Garret Graves and a member of the task force.

"We get right to the finish line and someone throws out a board and makes us trip," said White, who has pushed for the project for years.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs and a task force member, said he was flooded in 1997, 1983 and 2016.

"I know about the personal aspect of it," Pope said.

State Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, another task force member, also criticized the latest hurdle.

"It is really disgusting that we are at this juncture," Carpenter said.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.