BATON ROUGE – The record federal fund allocation Louisiana will receive for flood management will likely open the gates to completion of the Comite River Diversion Canal, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday.
Gov. Edwards, who addressed a meeting of the Restore Louisiana Task Force at the State Capitol, said the long-awaited project fits his administration’s criteria on how it should spend the additional $1.2 billion the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated to the state through a Community Development Block Grant.
The grant gives the state more flexibility and more funding than ever before, he said. The funds must go toward infrastructure enhancement, he said.
The CRDC – which has been on the drawing board since 1985 – will figure as a top priority along with other flood plains managed across the state, he said.
Instead of spending a huge sum of money to raise structures, the state should spend money to manage flood plains and raise base flood elevations, said Edwards, a longtime proponent of the CRDC.
“Shortly after the 2016 floods hit, and well before we had any funds for infrastructure enhancement, I instructed relevant agencies within the executive branch to begin planning on how we could best invest any funds we might receive to reduce flood risk across the state,” Gov. Edwards said. “It’s time we take a fresh, new look.”
The allocation brings about another waiting game from the federal government, which has not specified how and where the state must dole out the funds.
Publication in the federal registry will list the specifications on the grant money, but the state will not wait to implement plans.
“It will tell us exactly what they’re looking for,” Gov. Edwards said. “We have some idea what that will look like, but we’re not going to wait on that to put together our action plan that we’ll submit to the federal government because we want the action plan to be submitted as soon as possible so we can move forward on this as quickly as possible.”
Gov. Edwards and state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Cr. Shawn Wilson recently brought Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, Chief Commanding Officer of the Army Corps of Engineers, on a tour of the CRDC.
Semonite has said he would do all he can to expedite the project, Gov. Edwards said, and would see if he can spend COE money on the project because the federal government allocated him revenue to spend in states which received disaster declarations in 2016 and 2017.
The CRDC until recently had made no commitment on funding for the Corps, he said.
“We have a commitment from him to expedite the project,” Gov. Edwards said. We’re going to deliver this project and try to do it as fast as possible. We have flood protection needs all around the state, and we’re aware of that,” he said.
“While it’s a lot of money, we need to make sure to get the best utilization of the money -- the most bang for the buck, so to speak – so we can strengthen communities against future disasters.”
The Comite River Diversion Canal project was designed in the aftermath of the April 1983 flood event – the benchmark natural disaster prior to August 2016.
Livingston, Ascension and East Baton Rouge parishes have collected a 2.65-mill ad valorem tax since 2000, but delays from federal and state government have left the project largely in stalemate until 2014.
State Rep. Valarie Hodges, who heads a task force that oversees CRDC-related issues, said the relocation of utilities could begin by fall. The relocation and subsequent construction of a train bridge over U.S. 61 represent the costliest phase of the project.
A proposal to renew the millage another 10 years may go before voters in 2019.