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Coastal allies clash over plans to dip into BP fine money for a bridge

Phase One of the elevated LA. 1 bridge near Leeville (John Snell) Phase One of the elevated LA. 1 bridge near Leeville (John Snell)
PORT FOURCHON, LA (WVUE) -

Each day, about 1,000 semi trucks take LA. Hwy. 1 to and from Port Fourchon, the giant offshore oil center on the Gulf of Mexico west of Grand Isle.

The last several miles of the trip come by way of the new, elevated toll bridge, a $350 million monument to coastal erosion.

Hurricanes make the non-elevated portion one of the country's most vulnerable stretches of critical roadway.
 
During hurricanes, the old highway outside the levee system goes underwater.

"It has happened many times," said Windoll Curole, General Manager of the South Lafourche Levee District. "The sad part about it, LA 1 goes underwater with storms that hit Florida."
 
The state plans to build a $40 million section of the bridge over the  levee at Golden Meadow, leaving a gap from there to Leeville.

Pressed for money to complete the bridge, the LA One Coalition sees a possible solution in Restore Act funds from the BP oil spill.

Last month, the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority nearly voted to allow the potential transfer years from now, until the idea drew fire from environmentalists.

"We need to concentrate on what we as a state and a people and as a government have identified as our highest priority, which is coastal protection and restoration," said David Muth, Director of the National Wildlife Federation's Gulf Restoration Program.

Muth concedes Highway 1, like many other infrastructure projects, is a critical need, but argues it should not be met at the expense of the coast.

The BP fines, which could approach $9 billion for Louisiana, are aimed primarily at environmental projects.

However, under the Restore Act passed by Congress, 10% of the money can fund hurricane risk reduction projects, such as levees, flood gates and pumping stations.

"We have been a part of the mix from day one," said Ted Falgout, Chairman of the LA One Coalition.

Falgout notes they are asking for a potential $100 million contribution toward the final phase's coast of nearly $250 million.

However, both sides of the debate agree there is no guarantee any surplus money would be available.  

Although the bridge gets mentioned in the state's coastal master plan, it is not one of the projects in line for funding.

"If we don't build bridges to connect to extremely significant infrastructure or access to the Gulf, we're wasting our time," Falgout said.

Environmentalists fear a raid on restoration money as supporters of other projects line up for their own pet projects.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Muth argued the state has made significant strides in devoting resources toward coastal projects, and protecting those funds from being diverted to other programs.
 
"There is a conception around the country, deserved or not, that if you send money to Louisiana, they're gonna spend it on the wrong things," Muth said.   

He argues the effort to save the state's rapidly disappearing coastline already is critically underfunded.

"What surplus are we talking about here?" We have a $50 billion (master plan) bill here and we've identified maybe $8 or $9 billion for it," Muth said.  "I'd say there's no surplus."

The CPRA board could vote on the issue at its next meeting later this month.  However, the authority has yet to publish its agenda.

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