BATON ROUGE – Completion on the relocation of power lines and property acquisition will top the work order list for the construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal, officials from the project task force said in a meeting Tuesday.
The meeting at the State Capitol marked the first since an announcement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers committed $343 million for completion of the long-awaited project.
The state Department of Transportation and Development will meet with representatives from the COE next week to focus on completion of the 14,000 acres of land along U.S. 61 and re-routing of utility lines to complete the first functional phase of the project. The clearing of utilities will follow up with construction of a railroad bridge over the highway in what comprises the longest and costliest phase of the project.
The time frame on the remaining acquisitions remains uncertain, according to DOTD Chief Engineer Chris Knotts.
“At this point, we’re not sure if they want us to continue in that role, if they want to take it over or if it will be a split duty,” he said. “We can’t let it go dormant.”
Knotts did not have an exact figure on the number of parcels remaining, but the DOTD bought large tracks with canal corridors and adjacent pieces for mitigation.
As soon as the DOTD gets the right of way, they plan to move forward in a structured order to acquire property on bridges and move forward on acquisition on land for the next phase.
“It will involve logical steps,” Knotts said. “I think when the public realizes this project is actually going to be built, we will actually get more public cooperation than we got in the past.”
A time frame of three to four years remains the goal for completion, he said.
A message of due diligence prevailed amid the accolades for officials who secured the funding for the project.
“We’ve got the biggest piece of the puzzle,” said state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, who heads the task force. “The lack of money has been the prevailing reason why we couldn’t move forward with the project, but that’s no longer an issue.”
At the same time, she and other members stressed that celebration is premature.
“We can’t rest yet,” Hodges said.
Paul Sawyer, chief of staff for Congressman Garret Graves, also urged the committee not to rest on the laurels just yet.
“We’re at halftime, and we need to convert soil to concrete,” he said.
Sawyer said he and Graves will work on a timeline for when the project can be built, but the Corps of Engineers is waiting for implementation guidelines from the federal headquarters.
Graves is working to move the finalized guidelines forward as soon as possible, Sawyer said.
“We’ve got the money, so there’s no reason not to move forward,” he said. “The word is 'diligence.' How we address this will have an impact on how we address floods in the future.”
The combination of the CRDC project and a total of $10 billion in federal funds to improve flood control in the Greater Baton Rouge region.
The allocation includes $1.2 billion for homes and buildings damaged in the flood, $1.4 billion in flood protection and $1.2 billion Graves and Gov. John Bel Edwards announced for flood mitigation.
It does not mean the end to work on future flood control, Sawyer said.
The region should also benefit from the governor’s executive order for the formation of the Council on Watershed Management, which will address flood issues from a regional approach. It will consist of officials from the state Department of Transportation and Development, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Coastal Protection and Restoration, the Governor’s Office of Community Development and the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, who will work on methods to control regional floodplain management.
“With 100 percent funding of the Comite River Diversion Canal, the East Baton Rouge flood project and billions more, we’re about to achieve the flood protection we needed in 1983,” said Sawyer. “It’s a very important distinction to make that we’re only achieving 1983 flood protection when we need 2018 protection."