Texas resident proposes huge airport project

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 30, 2001


ST. ROSE – William Monteleone remembers as a 9-year-old child visiting his family’s property west of Kenner and behind James Business Park. Now, a Houston businessman, he dreams of a massive intermodal airport being built on the property with a price tag between $2 billion and $5 billion. He has already taken the first steps to make the dream a reality, having applied for a wetlands permit this week through the Coastal Management office of the state Department of Natural Resources. The project, dubbed “St. Charles International Airport,” would transform nearly 8,000 acres of marsh and create a world-class airport to handle cargo and passengers. At the same time, an 11,500-acre marsh habitat would be created north of the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad and Lake Pontchartrain, walled by a new lakeshore hurricane protection levee. The permit application caught many by surprise, not the least of whom was St. Charles Parish President Albert Laque, who commented, “Isn’t that a shocking thing? It’s really flabbergasting. I don’t know whether it’s a pipe dream or what.” He added, “I’d really like to talk to somebody from the outfit, just to know what’s going on.” When asked about the proposed facility, Sen. Joel Chaisson II of Destrehan said, “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. I’m totally opposed to this and I’ll do everything in my power to keep it from happening.” Marshlands preservationist Milton Cambre of Norco, who has fought for years to protect and enhance the LaBranche Wetlands, is against the project, mainly on environmental grounds. “It’s like I was going back in time 35 years,” Cambre said. “It was a big, big surprise. A bad surprise.” Ed Fike, projects manager for Coastal Environments Inc. of Baton Rouge, listed as agent for the applicant, stressed this is a serious project, and no pipe dream. “We think this is a positive project with significant economic benefit to the region,” Fike said. “The need for this project is twofold: meet the growing demand for air service capacity in the region and provide long-term protection to the deteriorating LaBranche Wetlands.” The proposed airport would require construction of three runways and accompanying taxiways, lowering a portion of the presently elevated Interstate 310 to allow for takeoffs to pass over the highway, either grade reduction of the railroad bisecting the property or abandonment of the track itself, a terminal facility to receive international passengers, an I-310 cloverleaf for freight movement and passengers and a forced-drainage system to protect the entire facility. A lakefront hurricane protection levee nearly six miles in length would extend from the Jefferson Parish line west to Bayou LaBranche along a right-of-way purchased for that purpose in 1971, and a flood protection levee nearly 10 miles in length would parallel most of Cross Bayou Canal south to Airline Drive. Documents included in the application claim unless something is done soon, most of the wetlands will convert to open water from the effects of saltwater intrusion from the lake. Between 1956 and 1998, Coastal Environments, Inc. estimated that 5,050 acres of the LaBranche wetlands converted to open water, an annual estimated loss of 120 acres. The project, totally funded from private sources, is not connected with the Louisiana Airport Authority’s plans for a regional intermodal airport, nor with the project currently championed by St. Charles Parish Councilman G. “Ram” Ramchandran. Ramchandran commented, “It is a crime against nature. This is really dumb. I think it’s a pipe dream.” The councilman said from an engineering point of view, it would be a “phenomenal challenge” to stabilize 60-foot deep marsh to support runways. “I don’t think people will sit idly by and watch the ecosystem be destroyed,” Ramchandran said. Monteleone said he owns 50 percent of the total site, with the rest split between the Edgar Monroe Foundation and the George Burgess Trust. However, he continued, “This project can’t be accomplished without the people desiring it to occur.” Yet to be done is applying for necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Environmental Quality, Federal Highway Works Administration, Federal Aviation Administration and St. Charles Parish. Fike estimated the permit process for the project would be “very lengthy – it would probably take two to five years.” “I’m sure there will be opposition,” he said, and added he felt the hearts and minds of the East Bank residents would be converted, once the need and justification for the project is fully explained. On the other hand, as Cambre put it, “The contacts have not yet been made; he has a lot of work to do.”