Gov. John Bel Edwards is seeking to reassure the shipping industry that a massive container terminal planned by the Port of New Orleans still has state support, after House leaders cut funding to the project in an apparent act of retribution against the Chalmette representative whose district includes the site.
Edwards, who has repeatedly voiced support for the project, said in an interview Wednesday he will ask the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget to approve a transfer of $4 million to undo the cut to two projects supporting the $1.8 billion container terminal.
He also touted a commitment of $50 million -- most of which will need to be allocated in future years -- for transportation projects in St. Bernard Parish to support the project. That future spending was spared by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and other leaders when they made a cut in the current year aimed at punishing state Rep. Ray Garofalo of Chalmette for voting against raising the state’s spending limit. Edwards also noted that the Regional Planning Commission awarded a contract to study the St. Bernard Transportation Corridor to support the terminal.
Edwards said he understands that House members who were “obstructionists” would have projects removed. But he said the container terminal project is different given its statewide importance.
He said he and port leaders have had to rush to mitigate the cuts, reiterating the state’s support for the project. Both Edwards and the port put out statements Wednesday affirming that the project is still moving forward. He said if lawmakers approve his request to reinstate the funding, the state Department of Transportation and Development will ink an agreement with the Port of New Orleans to do the work spelled out in House Bill 2 without any delays.
“There are $800 million in private financing dedicated to that project, and then we wake up Friday morning and there’s not even a project in the bill,” Edwards said. “So it’s a real problem. We’re having to work overtime now to reassure those investors that this is in fact a priority, it was a casualty of a maneuver at the end of session that people, quite frankly in the Legislature weren’t aware of, they didn’t read.”
Schexnayder, in a statement, downplayed the cut, saying Garofalo “didn’t push for” the project, and adding that he tried to prioritize projects “we could move on quickly.” He said most of the money cut from the project wasn’t going to be spent in the immediate future anyway.
“It could easily be added back in next year with virtually no delay,” Schexnayder said.
Economic development and maritime leaders in the region were blindsided by the move and have worried it would send a bad message to the international shipping industry.
House leaders cut two projects -- for site preparation, mitigation and road and rail improvements -- for the container terminal as part of a last-minute wave of changes to the state budget bill. The projects totaled $130 million, but all but $4 million is in the lowest priority category, meaning it would need to be allocated in the future. Edwards’ $4 million request is to replace the priority two funding that House members cut.
The proposed terminal is in Garofalo’s district, a few miles downriver from New Orleans. Garofalo said Tuesday he’s furious about the cut.
When Edwards in December announced a public-private partnership for the container terminal, he was accompanied by Schexnayder, who touted state support for the project.
The $1.8 billion terminal is seen by economic development officials as a crucial project to keep Louisiana competitive with ports in Mobile and elsewhere, as the Port of New Orleans vies for sought-after container traffic. The project has stirred controversy in St. Bernard Parish, where locals worry about the environmental and traffic impacts of the project, but Garofalo has been a strong supporter of the plan.
The 11th-hour change was among several that Edwards said left him scratching his head. He also noted the Legislature cut funding to the Jimmie Davis Bridge connecting Shreveport and Bossier, and he has similarly sought to assuage concerns about that project’s fate.