by Ken Stickney
Interstate 49 south efforts are making incremental progress, with a favorable bid received for reworking an intersection in St. Mary Parish and design plans progressing on the route that will link Shreveport to New Orleans, mostly along U.S. Highway 90.
But the big money for executing the project from Lafayette to New Orleans, the southern portion of the route in Louisiana, may not show up until 2020, when the department hopes to capitalize on additional funding scheduled to be gained through the Vehicle Sales Tax.
In response to a question from state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, Secretary of Transportation and Development Sherri LeBas told the Senate Finance Committee on Monday that bids were taken for work at the intersection of U.S. 90 and La. 318 in St. Mary Parish, along the route. The low bid of about $55 million came in about $4 million under the projection; a contract may be signed by May or June.
LeBas said that St. Mary project would leave an intersection at U.S. 90 and Ambassador Caffery in Lafayette and an intersection of U.S. and La. 88 in St. Martin Parish as the lone projects remaining for I-49 south below the Lafayette airport to St. Mary. The remainder of the route between those points meet standards for interstate highways.
LeBas said a consultant is at work on the Lafayette Connector, which would run from Interstate 10 to Pinhook Road.
The good news, she said, is that design work is progressing and will be well along when the Vehicle Sales Tax money — she said it would provide around $400 million a year — becomes available, probably in 2020. The Lafayette Connector alone will cost about $750 million.
LeBas appeared before the finance committee Monday morning to discuss her department’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget. Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, expressed concern to LeBas about state bridges that were out of service in his area, which includes St. Landry Parish, especially bridges in rural areas. He asked about the possibility of building lower-cost bridges, perhaps using timber, to replace some of those. He suggested it might be better to build several lower-cost bridges than one expensive bridge.
LeBas said she would review that possibility.
Department of Public Safety Secretary James LeBlanc told the Senate Finance committee that the state prison population is declining and the average cost of housing a prisoner remains lower in Louisiana than elsewhere. He said the state pays $36.59 a day to house a prisoner, on average. That includes state, local and private facilities. The cost of housing a prisoner in North Carolina is some $75 a day, one committee member said.
Nonetheless, Louisiana continues to have the country’s highest incarceration rate: about 840 prisoners per 100,000 people, LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc said the projected fiscal 2016 budget of $785.6 million was OK and that reductions of some $25 million were “manageable,” given the decrease in prisoners.
“It’s not anywhere like it was,” he said. “We had reached the breaking point.”
Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of Louisiana State Police, said State Police had 1,015 state trooper commissioned officers as of January. The number of troopers had been as low as 917, after five years with no trooper classes.
Edmonson said one class was graduated in 2014, one graduated earlier this year and a third class will graduate by the end of the year. He said the recommended budget of $52,799,104 was “barebones,” but that the State Police would do what was needed to protect the public.
“I just want to have the tools in their toolbox so they can effectively do their job,” he said.
He said the department could not sustain additional cuts and remain as effective.