Property acquisition continues for the Comite River Diversion Cana, Amite River Basin Commission Executive Director Dietmar Rietschier, seen here at the Nov. 7 meeting of the Comite River Diversion Canal Task Force. He is seated next to ARBC legal counsel Larry Bankston and Ben Babin, ARBC board president.

BATON ROUGE -- An ambitious deadline for completion of the Comite River Diversion Canal can only come to fruition with improved communication and a greater sense of transparency, the head of the project's task force said.

Following the announcement in July that the CRDC received full funding for completion, the push must continue to ensure that the Corps of Engineers (COE) completes the full project in the three to five years, as promised.

Part of that effort could come from creation of an informational system which outlines the progress of the work on the project, state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said at the Nov. 7 meeting at the State Capitol. 

"I don't see why we should have to hold task force meetings every time we want to know progress on this project," she said.

Hodges also urged for a push to carry out work on the project simultaneously rather than one portion at a time.

"There's no reason we can't get this done in a more expedited manner than three to five years," she said. "That's something the task force will keep pushing for."

The COE and the state Department of Transportation and Development targeted 2021 for completion of the project.

Land acquisition, mitigation acquisition, relocation of utilities and bridge design remain in progress for the project, said Bobby Duplantier, project manager for the Corps.

The Amite River Basin Commission, meanwhile, has held off on additional land purchases for the project. Full funding of the project has opened the door for reimbursement of the funds ARBC has already doled out for land acquisition.

"The efforts to get reimbursement have driven that train," ARBC legal counsel Larry Bankston said.

The relocation of the utilities along U.S. 61 remains the challenge for moving the project forward, ARBC executive director Dietmar Rietschier said.

"We're involved in the relocation being that we own the properties, but a lot of issues remain with the coordination of utilities," he said.

Construction on La. 964, La. 19 and La. 67 should begin in 2020, with anticipated completion in 2021.

The DOTD project tasks through that time involves land, easements, right of way, relocations and disposal areas. The state agency will also oversee bridge design and construction at La. 964, La. 19 and La. 67.

Design of the La. 964 work is 50 percent complete, with an anticipated bid date of 2020. Advertisement for bids for a design consultant for the work for La. 19 and La. 67 is targeted for late November or early December of this year, according to Pat Landry, deputy secretary for the DOTD. 

The full scope of work on the U.S. 61 utilities will include west-side relocation that will involve three of five pipelines, two transmission lines and two communication fibers. Relocation on the east side will entail movement of three of four pipelines, one distribution line and five communication fiber lines.

All utility relocations are currently under design, Landry said.

Despite the progress, the long delay for the project could necessitate a different focus on its design of the CRDC, as well as the East Baton Rouge Flood Control Project, said Paul Sawyer, Chief of Staff for Congressman Garret Graves.

"As much as we're eager to compete those projects, it doesn't represent a comprehensive solution," he said. "As important as these projects are, these are based on 1983 projections when we need to be looking toward a 2083 projection."

Those projections are outlined in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act bill, which covers nearly $3 billion in federal funding for priority flood and hurricane protection projects in south Louisiana, said U.S. Congressman Garret Graves, R-Louisiana, who serves as Chair of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee on Capitol Hill.

Congressman Garret and Sen. Bill Cassidy, both Republicans from Baton Rouge, pushed heavily for the funding, along with first-term Sen. John Kennedy. 

Livingston, East Baton Rouge and Ascension Parish taxpayers have paid a 2.65-mill property tax since 2000 to fund the project, which remains in the first phase of construction. The project was conceived in response to the 1983 flood, which was the benchmark natural disaster for the three parishes until the Great Flood of 2016.

The funding package includes nearly $1.4 billion in new federal funding and approximately $1.5 billion in previously announced flood protection and mitigation funding, according to Graves, who has worked closely with the White House, Army and Corps leadership on appropriations, expediting projects and realigning priorities.

The funding is a direct result of the 2016 Graves provision in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act that instructed the Corp to “provide priority funding for and expedite completion of the Comite River and East Baton Rouge Watershed projects.

The announcement came three months to the day that Congressman Graves and Gov. John Bel Edwards announced $1.213 billion in federal flood mitigation funds, which will be applied to additional flood mitigation projects in the Capital Region and throughout Louisiana. Graves also sought investments in the West Shore, Upper Barataria Risk Reduction, Amite River, Lafourche parish hurricane and flood projection, Morganza to the Gulf projects and others.

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