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Publication Number:      Date:  January/February 2004
Issue No: Vol. 67 No. 4
Date: January/February 2004


A Streamlining Success

by William C. Farr and Michele Deshotels

Louisiana came close to achieving the FHWA goal of streamlining the environmental impact statement process.

Aerial view of the LA 1 bridge
LA 1 bridge over Bayou Lafourche at Leeville, LA, looking southeast towards Grand Isle and the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: David Miller, LADOTD.

When the environmental study for a new Louisiana highway took only 44 months from start to finish (including the Record of Decision), the speedy turnaround proved that the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) goal of streamlining the review process is definitely achievable. The time span was very close to the FHWA 2007 goal of a median of 36 months for completing the environmental impact statement (EIS) process from the Notice of Intent to the approval of the final EIS.

On January 29, 2003, Louisiana Division Administrator William A. Sussmann signed the Record of Decision for the EIS for the new highway, which will link Port Fourchon, LA, to Golden Meadow, LA, and connect the port with the rest of the country. The $540 million project includes a new four-lane roadway for LA 1 and a new fixed span over Bayou Lafourche at Leeville to replace the existing lift bridge.

“To have a study of this magnitude completed in such a relatively short period of time is a credit to our local, State, and Federal leaders, as well as our members who provided the private financial support,” says Roy Francis, executive director of the LA 1 Coalition, an advocacy group for the project. "We are now excited to move into the preliminary construction phase of a highway that has [played] and will continue to play such an important role in America's energy supply."

Aerial photo of LA 1 bridge after the tropical storm Isidore devastated the area. Greater Lafourche Port Commission.
Tropical Storm Isidore made landfall in September 2002, washing over LA 1, as shown in this aerial photo.

A Vital Highway

The present LA 1 is a two-lane roadway following the natural levee of Bayou Lafourche. The highway is subject to periodic tidal inundation, which necessitates maintenance beyond the normal requirements, including removing debris washed up by high water and repairing shoulders washed out during major storms. The highway serves as the lone land access to Port Fourchon and Grand Isle in southern Louisiana.

LA 1 traverses two of the Nation's most productive estuaries, the Barataria and Terrebonne. "This marshland . . . is a national treasure," says Dr. Kam Movassaghi, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LADOTD).

Louisiana, home to the seventh largest delta on the planet, is rich in natural resources. Forty percent of the Nation's wetlands are located in the State, and more than 30 percent of the U.S. fisheries catch comes from offshore Louisiana. The Port Fourchon/Grand Isle area is considered one of the top fishing spots in the world. In addition, half of the bird species in North America make their home in Louisiana or travel through it while migrating.

"No less important is that LA 1 is the access to another national treasure-the oil and gas reserves in the Gulf," says LADOTD Secretary Movassaghi. According to statistics compiled by the LA 1 Coalition and Port Fourchon, 75 percent of the deepwater oil and gas production from the Gulf of Mexico goes through the port. In addition, Port Fourchon is the land base for the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which handles 13 percent of the Nation's foreign oil and is connected by pipeline to 30 percent of the U.S. refining capacity.

All of this is threatened by coastal loss. In the past 50 years, more than 3,885 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) of coastal Louisiana have been lost to erosion and subsidence. Louisiana's wetlands are a buffer from hurricanes and Gulf storms, protecting the coastal cities, including New Orleans. The wetlands also protect the wells, pipelines, roads, and levees that service the oil and gas industry, assuring delivery of this vital fuel supply to the eastern United States. Louisiana's wetlands are working wetlands, and transportation is the key to accessing these resources.

What the ongoing coastal loss will mean not only to Louisiana but also to the Nation is only now becoming fully understood. "The LA 1 improvements recognize the important role that transportation has in our daily lives and in our future, as well as acknowledging the important role that Louisiana plays as gatekeeper for the Nation's natural resources wealth," says Secretary Movassaghi. "We are grateful for the time and hard work that all of our sister agencies-Federal, State, and local-invested to enable us to reach a decision on this project that provides an essential link across such an environmentally sensitive, fragile marsh."

The Need for the Road

In addition to serving the residents, petroleum industry, commercial fishermen, and recreational sportsmen, LA 1 must serve as a hurricane evacuation route. "With continued coastal erosion and subsidence, it has become increasingly susceptible to flooding early in any weather event," says Marcus N. Redford, a branch chief with the U.S. Coast Guard in New Orleans.

The need for an all-weather road for port access and emergency evacuation, plus the current and projected heavy truck volumes, helped shape the proposed project. To replace the two-lane highway, a four-lane elevated facility with full control of access would be required, with fixed bridges spanning the navigable waterways. The project would be approximately 27 kilometers (17 miles) in length, extending from LA 3235 at the town of Golden Meadow south to the intersection of LA 1 with LA 3090, the entrance to Port Fourchon.

LA 1 from U.S. 90 (future I-49) to Port Fourchon is part of the National Highway System (NHS) because of its intermodal link to the Nation's energy supply. The proposed facility would complete the southernmost portion of this NHS route. When completed, a four-lane divided highway will be available from LA 3090, north of Port Fourchon, to north of Galliano.

Fourchon, to north of Galliano. For some time, the need for guaranteed continuous access to Port Fourchon had been recognized by the State of Louisiana, the Greater Lafourche Port Commission (which operates Port Fourchon), and Lafourche Parish. The overall importance of LA 1 is stated in the Governor's Executive Order No. MJF 98-46: "LA 1, a two-lane highway with sections [that] are impassable during inclement weather, is vital to the citizens who work and live in the region, for hurricane and tropical storm evacuation, workrelated and shopping commutes, shipping of shellfish and finfish harvested in the region's waters, and support services to the offshore drilling facilities."

Aerial shot looking south toward Port Fourchon and the Gulf.Greater Lafourche Port Commission.
This aerial shot is looking south toward Port Fourchon and the Gulf. The existing LA 1 sits on the natural levee of Bayou Lafourche.

The EIS Chronology
  • Notice of Intent published in the Federal Register:
    May 5, 1999
  • EIS consultant work ordered:
    September 20, 1999
  • Approval of the Draft EIS for distribution: October 25, 2001
  • Public Hearing:
    December 18, 2001
  • Approval of Final EIS:
    September 9, 2002
  • Record of Decision:
    January 29, 2003
Photo of a Shrimp boat on Bayou Lafourche.-
Shrimp boat on Bayou Lafourche. The fishing industry will benefit from improved access to markets.

The EIS Partnership

National recognition resulted in identification of funding in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) for construction of a bridge at Leeville and reconstruction of LA 1 from the Gulf of Mexico north. The growing realization of the importance of Gulf resources, both fisheries and oil and gas production, and the dependence on a single land access route, LA 1, for utilization of these resources resulted in the formation of a unique partnership that includes LADOTD, the LA 1 Task Force, Port Fourchon, and the LA 1 Coalition. The Port, partnering with interested stakeholders, provided the local share to match the TEA-21 funds used to fund the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.

Due to the broad range of issues and the potential for significant impacts, the transportation agencies recognized that they would be able to reach a decision on an EIS only if all interested partners were identified at an early stage and provided the opportunity to participate fully. Because of the importance of this roadway and the surrounding marsh to Louisiana and the Nation, LADOTD and FHWA approached Federal, State, and local agencies prior to the Federal Register notice and finalizing the scope of work to assure that agency concerns were consultant was hired.

"Through an orchestrated streamlining effort by FHWA and in cooperation with the stakeholders, a team was brought together to address requirements, routes, alternatives, and impacts in an open forum," says the Coast Guard's Redford. "FHWA served as the lead Federal agency for the NEPA process to produce a product in a timely manner that met the objectives for the project and [will have] the least impact on the environment."

From the beginning, all of the agencies involved realized that a timely decision could be reached only if everyone committed to open communication and sharing of information throughout the process. Active agency partners included the Eighth District, U.S. Coast Guard; New Orleans Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; National Marine Fisheries Service; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (Coastal Zone Management); Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism; and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program.

"The Coast Guard Bridge Administration participated in that process as a cooperating agency to the NEPA process to ensure that the current and future needs of navigation were met and preserved while protecting the environment," says Redford. "From the initial purpose and need, to scoping and through the final EIS document, close coordination has ensured that all objectives have been met.

"The product we have is the result of that cooperative effort, a plan that promises to protect the environment while providing for the intermodal needs of transportation in this economically important region of the State and Nation."

FHWA Lousiana Division Administrator William Sussmann signed the Record of Decision for LA I Bridge improvements while others look on.Michele Deshotels, LADOTD
FHWA Louisiana Division Administrator William Sussmann signs the Record of Decision on January 29, 2003, for LA 1 Improvements from Golden Meadow to Port Fourchon. Looking on, left to right: Marcus Redford, U.S. Coast Guard; Commissioner Chuckie Cheramie, Greater Lafourche Port Commission (GLPC); Ted Falgout, Johnny Melancon, and Larry Griffin, GLPC; Louisiana Representative Loulan Pitre; Ron Ventola, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Roy Francis, LA 1 Coalition; Deputy Secretary Blaise Carriere, DOTD; and Tom Eubanks, LA Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.

The Secrets of Success

Each agency committed to putting its concerns on the table. "The process worked so well because all the major agencies were in attendance and committed," says Richard Hartman, chief of the Habitat Conservation Division, Baton Rouge Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "All involved knew there was a basic need for the project in terms of both public safety and economics. The consultants utilized by LADOTD actually listened to the agencies and did quite a good job of addressing our concerns and comments early in the process."

In addition, there was considerable involvement and input from numerous other agencies, communities, elected officials, and citizens throughout the process. LADOTD and FHWA, through the consultant, Michael Baker, Jr., Inc., addressed each concern with the best data available. Each agency continued its responsibility by actively assisting in reviewing data and providing comments and direction.

"For years, local residents and the thousands of energy workers who travel through Port Fourchon have recognized the immense importance of LA 1," says Rep. Loulan Pitre of Cut Off, LA. "Today, our message is being heard in Baton Rouge and in Washington, DC. Now more than ever, improvements to this significant highway are not only a local need but a national necessity."

At the same time, LADOTD and FHWA announced they had made a joint decision that end-on construction would be given full consideration everywhere it could be done. End-on construction is a "top-down" technique. Instead of being placed on the ground or in the water, the heavy construction equipment is placed on top of a work platform mounted on concrete piles. From these platforms, a crane drives piles and pushes the bridge viaducts forward, one span at a time. Once a span is completed, the crane crawls forward onto the next work platform to repeat the cycle.

The decision to use end-on construction let the other agencies know from the beginning that the transportation agencies realized and valued the importance of both road and marsh. Ultimately the final decision was for end-on construction for the entire project with the exception of the fixed high-rise bridge at Leeville, where the vertical grade rise made end-on construction impractical. In fact, conventional construction techniques to be used at this bridge site may well provide exceptional opportunities for marsh restoration in this rapidly subsiding area.

Context-Sensitive Solutions

On all levels, the project serves as a textbook example of fulfilling the goals of environmental stewardship and streamlining. At one level, for example, the partnership used geographic information system (GIS) technology in the alignment selection, thereby reaching decisions efficiently. At a broader level, a major reason for success was that the process embodied the principles of context-sensitive solutions

Each of the following principles were given full credence: (1) develop projects through a collaborative process that actively engages communities and other stakeholders early and often; (2) balance safety, mobility, and economic goals with the preservation of environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, and cultural values; (3) build projects that add lasting value to communities and involve minimal disruption; (4) implement a flexible design process that is sensitive to project goals, timelines, and the environment; and (5) exceed the expectations of designers and stakeholders.

Offshore oil rigs can be seen from the shoreline at Fourchon, LA.-
Offshore oil rigs are visible from the shoreline at Fourchon, LA. The breakwaters in the foreground were installed to attenuate wave action and protect the shoreline.

Marsh Dieback

In the summer of 2000, during the development of the EIS, a massive dieback of salt marsh grass severely affected 42,525 hectares (105,000 acres), or about 425 square kilometers (164 square miles), with an additional 55,890 hectares (138,000 acres) stressed. The dieback made the LA 1 project team only more determined to assess potential impacts to marsh grass from the proposed elevated structure.

The result was a study to evaluate the possible effects that shading from the elevated structure would have on smooth cord grass. The agencies agreed that the required mitigation acreage would be determined by adding to the direct wetland impacts (the marsh area directly affected by pile driving) the amount of marsh that would be shaded for 4 hours or more each day. The agencies agreed that this proactive approach would enable mitigation to be in place prior to construction and impacts on vegetated wetlands.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) gives primary credit to the Federal and State transportation agencies for the successful environmental review. "Two factors contributed to the timely preparation of the EIS for the proposed relocation of LA 1 between Fourchon and Golden Meadow," says Ronald Ventola, chief of the Regulatory Branch, New Orleans District, USACE. "First, the Federal Highway Administration and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development understood the sensitivity of the habitat traversed by the proposed project and were willing to incorporate design features that significantly reduced the overall impacts of traversing over 16 miles [26 kilometers] of brackish and saline marshes.

"Second, the Federal Highway Administration and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development were able to relay to the resource and regulatory agencies the importance of the proposed project and the lack of viable alternatives. The only remaining item was to hammer out a document that addressed all public interest concerns and satisfied the Corps' regulatory requirements under NEPA. In the course of preparing the EIS, I believe there was mutual respect between all agencies and a willingness by the transportation agencies to consider and incorporate into the document suggestions made by the resource and regulatory agencies."

Only because the two transportation agencies assumed responsibility for being good environmental stewards could the Record of Decision for a project of this magnitude in such a fragile area be issued in 44 months from the time of the Notice of Intent. This project required intense coordination, cooperation, and commitment on the part of all involved: LADOTD, FHWA, the consultant, and the regulatory and resource Federal, State, and local agencies. This Louisiana success story is a prime example of how diverse interests can respond in a timely manner without seriously compromising their views.

The project is now in the design stage and will be phased to accommodate funding.

William C. Farr, program operations manager for FHWA's Louisiana Division, is a graduate of the University of South Carolina (B.S. in civil engineering) and began his career with FHWA in 1979. He has been working in Louisiana for the past 10 years, where he also has held the position of technical operations manager. Before that, Farr held engineering positions in the Virginia and Nevada divisions. Prior to FHWA, he worked for the South Carolina DOT.

Michele Deshotels, environmental impact manager, has worked for LADOTD since 1980. A graduate of Louisiana State University (B.A. in anthropology), she leads a team of environmental scientists who conduct environmental analyses and write NEPA documents. Deshotels served as LADOTD's project manager for the EIS on the LA 1 improvements project.

For more information, contact William C. Farr at william.farr@fhwa.dot.gov or Michele Deshotels at micheledeshotels@dotd.louisiana.gov.




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