Funding combination hurdle remains for levee protection launch

Published 12:13 am Wednesday, September 27, 2017

LAPLACE — The federal government’s fiscal year begins Sunday, and levee construction via the Westshore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Risk Reduction Project (and with it greater flood and hurricane protection for St. John the Baptist residents) is not in the budget.

A complicated combination of local tax dollars, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding, state funds and federal allocations will be needed to start the project, which will take years to develop, federal and local officials told L’OBSERVATEUR.

During an extended interview this month on the issue, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-Baton Rouge) said the federal government must begin spending millions of dollars in proactive infrastructure spending as opposed to the absurdity of spending billions of dollars after a disaster in recovery funding.

“It’s completely unaffordable,” Graves said. “There are better strategies that we can be carrying out in regard to resilience. The coast of the United States comprises 10 percent roughly of the land area, yet 40 percent of the population is living there. We’ve got to get good at resilience.”

Despite what Graves said he and others in Congress see as obvious, federal spending on new projects is a hard concept to get approved.

“Name a Corps of Engineers project in the state of Louisiana that’s been finished by the Corps in the last 20 years?” Graves said. “With the exception of the New Orleans Katrina work, name a project? The only one of I can think of is Davis Pond, a freshwater diversion project in St. Charles.

“The point is we have billions of dollars in projects authorized in the state of Louisiana through the Corps and nothing is getting done. For us to take this strategy of putting all of our eggs in this Corps of Engineers basket, it’s a flawed strategy.”

Parish President Natalie Robottom said local leaders are working to secure funding through the recently passed St. John ad valorem tax and partnerships between neighboring parishes, the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Pontchartrain Levee Board.

Restore and GOMESA funds can also go toward the project, which is in the state’s 2017 Master Plan, Robottom said.

“Flood Protection is our No. 1 priority in St. John Parish and everyone — residents and elected officials — should be advocates for funding for this project,” she said. “Residents can assist by calling the state and federal delegation for support. Specifically, calling and writing state leaders to ask that the GOMESA dollars get restored and that the Governor actively lobbies on behalf of the project when visiting Washington, D.C. Federally, the project needs to be funded through the Corps and the President so reaching out to our Congressmen will help.”

St. John Parish will begin collecting new tax funds in January, and Robottom said the need for that money is tied to the finalization of a memorandum of understanding with the Levee Board and Corps.

According to Parish administrators, bonding will be secured on an “as needed” basis to avoid unnecessary interest costs.

Based on information from the design engineer, Robottom said projections for allocations over a six-year period are $2.23 million in year 1, $2.23 million in year 2, $6.49 million in year 3, $20.85 million in year 4, $12.23 million in year 5 and $4.87 million in year 6.

“These funds are dedicated to flood protection and can only be used in that matter or for St. John’s portion of the levee project,” Robottom said.

Local officials said St. John Parish Government’s cost-share for the levee project would be $50 million, with annual maintenance costs of $5 million.

Graves said Congress does not earmark spending on Corp projects and the best bets to secure federal funding for the Westshore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Risk Reduction Project are through a Corp “New Start” designation or mandate from the White House Budget Office.

“For us to sit back and just say I am going to wait on Corps funding, based upon other project models around the country, that is not a successful strategy,” Graves said. “While I work on it and our delegation works on fundamental change within the Corps of Engineers, we currently need to work on a strategy that is going to advance Westshore.”