Op-ed by Louisiana Treasurer, John Kennedy
There's good news and bad news about I-49. The good news is the state has secured the funding for I-49 North, the 40 miles from Shreveport to the Arkansas line, and the project will be completed soon. The bad news is we don't have the money yet to complete I-49 South.
The I-49 South project is basically an upgrade of US Hwy 90 to interstate standards. US 90 runs 140 miles from Lafayette to the Westbank Expressway in New Orleans, touching nine parishes containing 36 percent of Louisiana's population. Eighty percent of the nation's offshore oil and gas supply, almost 30 percent of the country's energy consumption, comes from or through Louisiana. US 90, known as "America's Energy Corridor," makes this possible. Unfortunately, US 90 has been operating over capacity for years, and by 2030 the deterioration will cause it to fail completely.
Completion of I-49 North and South will ensure that Louisiana can continue to meet America's energy needs, create an international north-south trade corridor from the Louisiana Gulf Coast to Canada, keep our ports from losing business to Houston, improve hurricane evacuation, relieve traffic congestion, save lives and create over 100,000 jobs.
It will cost between $2 billion and $5 billion to complete I-49 South, depending upon what the federal government allows us to do. Senator Bret Allain of Franklin, former Senator Mike Michot of Lafayette and former DOTD Secretary Dr. Kam Movassaghi, along with other public officials, business owners and economic development officials, have formed the I-49 South Coalition, and are working diligently on long-term financing options.
In the meantime, the state has a rare opportunity to do something about I-49 South right now.
It appears we will have an over $100 million surplus from last fiscal year, which ended June 30, as a result of a late, unanticipated increase in revenue. I would like to spend this money on higher education, but we can't, because this surplus is considered "non-recurring" and under our state constitution can only be spent on a narrow list of things. One of those things is Capital Outlay-like I-49 South.
If I-49 South really is as important as we say, then all of or a substantial portion of this one-time budget surplus should be spent on it.
This will be controversial. Louisiana has a $10 billion infrastructure backlog, including hundreds of needed road projects spread throughout the state. We don't have money for them all. That means public officials should do what families and businesses do every day-prioritize. Rather than doing the politically expedient thing of spreading taxpayer money around as many projects as we can, and watering down the soup, we should decide which Capital Outlay projects are the most important and fund those first.
Now that I-49 North is practically done, I-49 South should be at the top of that list of priorities.
Spend the surplus on I-49 South. Let's put our money where our mouth is. Louisiana won't regret it.