June 24, 2019
Halle Parker, HoumaToday.com
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves and Terrebonne officials were optimistic after meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers Thursday about the re-evaluated cost of the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system, lowered by several billion dollars.
In 2014, the corps stated the project would cost about $10.3 billion to meet the standards set after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Last Wednesday, the corps announced that it had re-evaluated the cost of the project, decreasing the size of the levee’s footprint and accounting for the $400 million of state and parish investment as well as lower material transportation costs.
Those adjustments, among others, significantly reduced its price tag from $10.3 billion to between $3.2 billion and $6 billion, while still meeting the standards of protecting against a flood event that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year.
Terrebonne and state officials have said they’re looking at the $3.2 billion option, which would have the system complete around 2035 and offer protection for about 50 years, into 2085.
While he would like to see the project cost fall below $3 billion, Graves said, the decision for the corps to review the project last November and come back with a new price was “unprecedented.”
“They’ve never done something like this before in the whole country,” he said.
Both Graves and Terrebonne Levee Director Reggie Dupre said they were encouraged by the corps’ willingness to work with them in the effort to garner federal funding. While Morganza-to-the-Gulf is an authorized project, it has yet to receive any federal money toward its construction.
“We’re getting to the point where we have an actually buildable or digestible project when looking at the funding realities,” said Graves.
Dupre said he’s seeing “a new level of engagement” from the corps , more than he’s seen since restrictions tightened after Katrina and the corps became more conservative.
To bring the cost down further, Dupre said, locals were hoping to be able to use a provision in federal law that would allow non-federal sponsors to take over a project. This would put it in the hands of the state, which could work with local officials to look for more ways to lower the cost.
“This is a perfect model of being able to do it,” he said.
For these projects, Dupre said, the federal government takes on 65 percent of the cost. For the $3.2 billion option, that would be about $2.08 billion.
Because it would take 15 to 16 years to complete, or by 2035, Dupre said, that would average out to about $130 million each year from the federal government.
Graves said the $3.2 billion figure could come down to about $2 billion.
According to Dupre and Graves, the corps said the next step in the process would be to review the cost-benefit ratio of the project to see how economical the project is as a use of taxpayer money.
Dupre said the ratio at the $10.3 billion cost was 1.4 to 1, so the country would be getting back $1.40 for every $1 spent.
While the corps initially stated that step could take another year, Graves said the parishes couldn’t wait that long. He said the schedule needs to match the urgency of the situation as the project has been in the works since the 1990s.
Dupre said the corps left the meeting saying it wouldn’t take a year but didn’t provide an adjusted timeline.
Once the corps follows through with the next step, Graves said, he would try to get an authorization and appropriation for the money from Congress.
“Things aren’t perfect,” said Graves. “But I’m optimistic that we can get to a place where we can make this project a reality.”