Morganza authorization draws near in D.C.

By:  Eric Besson, Tri-Parish Times

May 8, 2014

Southeast Louisiana’s congressional delegation extolled optimism last week following an incremental but significant advancement in efforts to attain federal authorization for Morganza to the Gulf.

The $13 billion storm-protection project officially remains in limbo as a congressional conference committee reconciles House and Senate incongruities in their respective Water Resources and Development Act bills. The Senate version authorized Morganza, and the House version omitted it.

But the project garnered a long-awaited audience in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on April 29. That Morganza was presented to the House’s WRDA committee has Louisiana’s delegation confident it will be included in the conference committee’s final proposal, as that had been seen as a speed bump on the now 22-year road to authorization.

“We’re keeping Morganza moving forward on the right track, and we’re very close to producing a final version of this major hurricane and flood protection bill,” said Republican Sen. David Vitter, a lead Senate negotiator on the conference committee who has long pledged the final bill would include Morganza.

Only projects that both had a favorable report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – which Morganza received last year – and had been heard by Transportation and Infrastructure were included in the House’s WRDA bill, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, who twice wrote to the committee urging a Morganza hearing.

“The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s review of Morganza to the Gulf today is a long overdue but necessary step that sends a powerful message to the House and Senate members crafting the final water infrastructure bill that this project must be included,” the Democrat said.

The meeting covered all projects for which chief’s reports had been submitted to Congress since June of 2013.

Congressman Steve Scalise, whose district includes coastal Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, reiterated his support for Morganza authorization.

“After nearly 20 years of facing bureaucratic red-tape, we are now at the doorstep of Congress finally authorizing the Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Project in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA),” Scalise said.

Although Morganza has twice been authorized – in 2000 and 2007 – it subsequently lost those authorizations, as the corps missed a post-authorization change report deadline and as post-Katrina federal levee standards caused the price tag to skyrocket.

Congress has yet to allocate any construction money toward the system, now designed as 98 miles of levee, 19 floodgates, a lock in the Houma Navigational Canal and other flood control structures. It would stretch from U.S. Highway 90 in Gibson to La. Highway 1 in Lockport. The mammoth project calls for levee and structural elevations at 18 feet and levee widths from 282 to 725 feet.

In signing off on the project, the corps concluded the projects’ benefits would outweigh the costs by a $1.40 to $1 ratio. Advocates tout it would protect 200,000 residents as well as industrial and infrastructure interests.

The projected cost to the federal government including inflation is $8.4 billion, or 65 percent of the total cost. The state and local share is estimated at $4.5 billion, which would be more than $200 million per year over a 20-year period.

Authorization does not guarantee federal appropriations, though it does make a project eligible to tap into federal funding sources. Among WRDA’s goals is to reform the corps, which has a backlog of projects at an estimated cost of at least $60 billion.

For Morganza, authorization would immediately offer autonomy and assurances to local and state stakeholders who have begun constructing a scaled-down version of Morganza’s footprint with local tax dollars. It would streamline the permitting process for individual reaches and credit expended funds – about $265 million in completed or ongoing construction – toward the required local/state cost share.

The local stake is expected to grow to $500-$800 million within the next seven years, said Lori LeBlanc, managing consultant for the Morganza Action Coalition, an industry-funded group founded in 2006 to advocate for authorization and funding.

“We’re very close, and we’re hopeful,” said LeBlanc, who said a reconciled WRDA could be passed and signed by the president prior to Memorial Day. “It definitely is a significant milestone. It will be a significant achievement, and hopefully the third time is the charm for us.”

Now, local and state stakeholders must apply for individual permits for individual Morganza reaches. Because the project would be federally recognized as a whole, authorization would eliminate that requirement, which consumes time and money, LeBlanc said.

“It allows us to use those (local) dollars even more efficiently,” LeBlanc said.

Terrebonne voters committed in 2012 to paying a half-cent sales tax for 28 years with revenues dedicated to Morganza’s footprint. The tax is expected to raise more than $300 million over its lifespan, and a portion of anticipated proceeds was bonded to generate $98 million in immediate funds.`



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