Route Q selected for Highway 3241 | Corps decision disappointing to elected officials

Published 6:26 pm Thursday, July 12, 2012

After more than 20 years of being mothballed and entangled in a bureaucratic labyrinth, a route for the long-delayed Louisiana Highway 3241 has been given tentative approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But the selection of Route Q has staggered elected officials to the point of questioning if the project will ever emerge from the planning cocoon.

On Thursday, the Corps announced Route Q would be the least environmentally damaging and thus would be a candidate for permitting.

Highway 3241, which traces its roots to a legislative bill approved in 1989, would connect Washington Parish to Interstate 12 if completed.

Route Q, which was the least preferred route of St. Tammany and Washington parishes and Louisiana Department of Transportation Department officials, and even Sen. David Vitter, connects with I-12 at Exit 74 near the Louisiana Heart Hospital in Lacombe. From there, the highway would divert to the northwest and follow more of a northerly course along an abandoned railroad corridor before coming in south of Talisheek.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily News, Corps engineer Brenda Archer said Route Q was chosen because it was determined to be the most environmentally friendly.

“We are obligated by law that if we (do) permit, permit the least environmental damaging,” Archer said. “We evaluated the environmental and cultural resources (including number of residents to be displaced, historical sites, schools, and more than 20 additional factors) on each of the alternatives.”

Also impacting the decision, officials said, was the discovery of gopher tortoises in St. Tammany Parish.

Archer said the existence of the tortoises was revealed at a public hearing in September in Abita Springs and had a “strong impact on the analysis.”

“Definitely hadn’t heard that,” Washington Parish President Richard Thomas said of the tortoise revelation. “We’ve heard different things but it just doesn’t make any sense they are in the one area.”

Thomas and other officials preferred Route P, which joined with I-12 at the Louisiana 1088 exit and wound its way through a largely uninhabited area of St. Tammany before joining up with the four-lane portion of Louisiana Highway 21 near Bush.

Thomas’ disappointment was echoed by DODT spokesperson Jodi Conachen, who said Route P offered the department an avenue to improve traffic flow along I-12.

In a 51-page report, the Corps said Route Q was “identified as having the least amount of direct wetlands impacts, least impacts to quality wetlands, less of a disruption to surface hydrology and fewer segmentation of habitats. Because (Route) Q impacts fewer wetland areas of lower function quality, (Route) Q has less of an impact on the functions and values determined to public interest.”

However, Route Q is not without its own cache of problems, including it being 4.5 miles longer than Route P. Also, because the proposed routes were developed so long ago, a St. Tammany Parish coroner’s office and animal shelter now sit directly in Route Q’s path, although Corps officials said DODT has the opportunity to modify the original route and resubmit those modifications for additional study and approval.

Additionally, Route Q would cause the displacement of 19 residences, where Route P would have caused five houses to be relocated.

Although Route P carries the higher price tag, according to Conachen — $267 million to $225 million for Route, Q — many believe the chosen route will ultimately be a money pit. In fact, during a recent conference call, Vitter told Corps officials that most people believe Route Q would never be built.

Several parcels of property were also purchased by the state along Route P whereas much more property will have to be purchased on Route Q. Additionally, officials said moving the 19 residences will be costly, as well as modifications to avoid the coroner’s office and animal shelter.

“I’m disappointed Route Q was chosen,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t see where Route Q (would be better).”

“Just a gut feeling that it won’t be built,” he added. “Hopefully this will work out.

“I hope they are able to build it. We would be happy for just about anything. Beggars can’t be choosy.”

The selection concludes an arduous journey that began in 1989 with the Louisiana Legislature passing a bill approving several road projects to be paid for with a four-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. Highway 3241 and a bridge project in New Orleans, which has long since been abandoned, are the only two not to have been constructed.

Highway 3241, which Washington Parish officials have called critical for economic development in the eastern end of the parish, was dormant and appeared to have fallen off of the Corps’ radar even with Gov. Bobby Jindal telling Washington Parish residents during a town hall meeting in October 2008, “you have my commitment, we’re going to build that road. I’m going to fulfill the contract that was made.”

Despite Jindal’s commitment, the project appeared to have moved to the Corps’ chopping block until two years ago when U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, who still represented Washington Parish at the time, said in a Daily News interview that he was applying pressure to put the project on the fast track.

He even guaranteed parish residents they would be driving on the new highway in five years.

During the public hearing this past fall, when the number of alternatives was trimmed from five to two, emotions ran high from opponents, who were all St. Tammany residents, and proponents, which included a gumbo of St. Tammany and Washington residents. Many St. Tammany residents expressed anger about the need for the highway and some even hurled verbal insults and degrading comments toward the people of Washington Parish.

However, Corps officials maintained that although the comments were considered and incorporated into the Environmental Impact Study, which was released this past spring, the Corps’ fundamental mission is to protect the environment.

“By law we are required to look at the analysis itself,” said Corps engineer Ricky Boyett. “We are held to find the least environmentally damaging (option).

“(Comments and preferences by officials and residents) are (part of the process) but not so much (of a factor).”

Conachen said the DODT would move forward with the pre-construction process, which would take up to four years to complete. She added that construction could ultimately occur in phases, with one lane in each direction being initially completed before finishing the four-lane road at a later date.