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Despite Budget Woes, La. Projects Remain on Track, for Now

Fri May 01, 2009 - Southeast Edition

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) A new Mississippi River bridge upriver from Baton Rouge. An improved Earhardt Boulevard in New Orleans. Wider highways in rural Louisiana.

Billions of dollars over budget, big highway construction projects remain on schedule for completion statewide this year and in 2010. But projected spending of $1.4 billion has nearly quadrupled to $5.2 billion.

The original projections were so far off that William Ankner, state transportation secretary since last year, has openly scoffed at gross underestimation of inflation and the rising prices of steel, labor and construction materials. The most glaring example: widening the Huey P. Long Bridge in Jefferson Parish was initially estimated at $50 million — but is now projected to cost $1.1 billion, more than 20 times the original estimate.

“I think they were apocryphal estimates,’’ Ankner told a panel of lawmakers recently. “Well, they were basically reached out of thin air in some cases.’’

Wrong to start with, the forecasts became less realistic after the 2005 hurricanes.

“The biggie was when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit,’’ said Troy Gros, spokesman of the consortium of engineering firms handling the projects. “That really put a demand on construction materials: they basically skyrocketed the cost of steel, the worldwide demand for construction material. That’s what inflated the costs.’’

The projects are part of the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development, or TIMED, created by the Legislature in 1989 to pay for and complete 16 pricey highway and bridge projects across the state. Seven are finished, seven are in the works and two — one in New Orleans, the other in the Florida Parishes — are in the planning stages.

A 4-cent fuel tax was supposed to pay for the road work. But it doesn’t produce enough money, and the state has issued $1.9 billion in bonds since 2002 and plans another $985 million in bonds this year and next.

The state gambled and lost on a TIMED bonds “interest-rate’’ swap with Wall Street amid the credit crunch last year, and faces a possible termination penalty of more than $130 million if it can’t sell those bonds by May 1.

Lawmakers have been critical of the funding system for years, questioning how it could be so far out of whack.

“The TIMED program itself started off as a chimpanzee, and it evolved into a gorilla and we need a miracle to fix it,’’ said Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa.

Ankner insists construction will continue, and contractors will be paid, but critics aren’t sure. The Public Affairs Research Council, a government watchdog group, has declared the TIMED funding situation a “crisis’’ that threatens to imperil work on the two bridges.

“Available money for the two bridge projects is running out, and construction could be halted if bond money or other sources cannot be tapped by mid-2009,” a PAR report said.

The flashiest of the projects will be a new, $403 million Mississippi River bridge — named after wildlife artist John James Audubon — spanning the Mississippi River between St. Francisville and New Roads. The bridge is set for completion in late 2010, billed as the longest “cable-stayed’’ bridge in the Western Hemisphere.

The improved Huey P. Long Bridge, set to open in 2013, will mean New Orleans area commuters will no longer face a white-knuckle drive due to the current span’s narrow lanes. The project includes widening of existing lanes from 9 to 11 ft. (2.7 to 3.3 m), addition of a new 11-ft. lane in each direction and addition of shoulders.

Impatient lawmakers, many hoping to get new highway projects in their districts, say the TIMED problem indicates broader troubles state government has in figuring out how to pay for infrastructure. Some have new ideas about raising extra money for construction.

Rep. Eddie Lambert, R-Gonzales, said he plans to sponsor legislation this year that would give the state a share of money cities raise with traffic light cameras that snap photos of motorists running red lights.

“If we’re going to put money into transportation, we ought to be serious about it,’’ Lambert said. “Every time you put in a new road, you’re bringing in new businesses, new tax revenue.’’

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