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Critics believe Florida Ave. roadway would help St. Bernard at the expense of the 9th Ward

23rd January 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

A Florida Avenue road project, conceived before Katrina, will bring hardship to the Ninth Ward and adjacent areas of New Orleans, while helping neighboring St. Bernard Parish, critics say. The federal- and state-funded plan would create a freeway through the Ninth and Eighth Wards on the Florida corridor for trucks traveling from St. Bernard Port. The feasibility of this plan is being assessed now, and construction could begin in 2021.

Last fall, two public meetings on the proposal were held in the Ninth Ward, and last Thursday New Salem Baptist Church in the Upper Ninth hosted an airing of views.

“We see no benefits from this project to our area, parts of which are still recovering from Katrina,” Debra Campbell, secretary-treasurer of A Community Voice, a nonprofit on St. Claude Avenue, said last week. “The project will give trucks from St. Bernard Port and industry in Chalmette quick access to I-10. To do that, roads would be widened in Orleans, and property could be taken from people here under government rights.” Florida Avenue structures look particularly vulnerable.

Campbell said there’s no need for any of those measures. “St. Bernard truck traffic could stay inside St. Bernard Parish by using Paris Road to get to the interstate,” she said.

As for who might be affected, “predominantly, it will be African-American, Ninth Ward residents, including homeowners, many of whom are seniors, along with renters,” Campbell said. Some of those renters live in public housing, like the revamped Florida development in the Upper Ninth Ward.

A Florida Avenue road-and-bridge plan was unveiled by the state in 1989. As far as Orleans is concerned, it looks outdated now, Campbell said. She doubts the project will do much for the Ninth Ward’s harbors and industry. Marine activities slowed after the ward was devastated by Katrina and Rita in 2005. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal or MR-GO was shut in 2008 to keep storm surge out. And the Naval Support Activity site at the foot of Poland Avenue was closed in 2011.

In addition to the project’s likely property seizures, displacement of residents and construction nuisances, Campbell said that if Florida Avenue is rebuilt, the Ninth Ward will be subject to exhaust, noise and vibrations from trucks. Hazardous cargo will be a threat.

Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development has big aims for the project, however, saying it can connect Florida Avenue from Elysian Fields Avenue to Paris Road in a reliable manner. The project can provide an optimal, north-south connection from Florida Avenue to St. Bernard Port. A roadway bridge would be built over the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, adjacent to the existing Florida Avenue Bridge. Area roads would be improved and newly aligned, DOTD has said.

“The study area is from north of Florida Avenue, south to St. Claude Avenue/West St. Bernard Highway, and from the west at Elysian Fields Avenue east to Paris Road,” according to DOTD. Environmental assessments, under way now, are examining “potential effects to cultural resources, threatened and endangered species, natural resources and the human environment,” the agency says.

Last week, DOTD spokeswoman Bambi Hall said that construction is being considered for all possible routes that meet the corridor’s needs. “Build alternatives being looked at now were carried over from a feasibility study completed in 2013,” she said. “Improvements to Paris Road are being considered.”

“The project was mandated under the state’s TIMED Program, which began in 1989, when voters approved a 4-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline to fund projects under Act 16 of that year’s Louisiana legislature,” Hall said. The state’s $4.7 billion, TIMED Program uses transportation projects for economic development.

When asked, DOTD didn’t provide the expected cost of the Florida Avenue proposal. Debra Campbell said she had heard an estimate of $625 million, but added that it’s unknown which parts of the plan are most likely to be adopted.

“DOTD is committed to continuing a common-sense approach to design of the project, as it seeks to fulfill a constitutional obligation to complete it and deliver multi-modal access for the Orleans and St. Bernard communities, as well as industry,” Hall said.

Construction would start three or more years after the current environmental assessment is done, depending on funding and final design, according to the DOTD’s project website. “Final design must be approved, and funding must be in place for construction to begin,” Karimah Stewart of The Hawthorne Agency, a New Orleans firm liaising with the community on the project, said last week.

In an online schedule, the project’s environmental studies and their documentation should be complete by this December. An almost-two-year review of the project is expected to wrap up by early next year. That suggests construction could start in 2021.

St. Bernard Port didn’t respond to requests for comment on the project last week.

This article originally published in the January 23, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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