The state’s announcement Monday that it would pledge $4 million to replace the state Hwy 3033 bridge and Cheniere Lake spillway provoked several questions from local officials and lake residents, whether about the lack of funding in the past or the lack of support for urgent repairs.
Some parish officials also expressed concerns that the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD)’s project replacing the bridge and spillway could result in a dried-up lake.
DOTD officials were unable to answer questions about why no funding for emergency or temporary repairs could be made available to rebuild the spillway and drainage control structure so water could be restored to its previous levels at the lake.
“The people of this community really want the water back on the lake, because right now it’s in bad shape,” said Don Plunk Jr., chairman of the Cheniere Lake Citizens’ Advisory Committee.
DOTD officials representing Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration held a news conference Monday afternoon at the Cheniere Lake Lodge to announce the state’s new financial commitment to the lake project.
Sen. Jim Fannin led the news conference and commended DOTD officials for securing the $4 million in funding.
“It’s an honor for me today to say that the funding is here, and they’re committed,” said Fannin, R-Jonesboro. “We’re going to move forward with a new bridge and a new spillway.”
Previously, funding for Cheniere Lake’s bridge and spillway sparked fractious remarks between Fannin and local officials, because Fannin has argued the parish should shoulder the costs of any repairs and defended the state for withdrawing its financial support of a $9-million project rebuilding the bridge and spillway.
During the news conference Monday, Fannin invited DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson to offer remarks on the project and answer questions. Some of the initial questions pertained to overgrowth of baldcypress and water tupelo along the banks of the lake. Several other legislators stood behind Fannin and Wilson as the pair fielded questions from people in attendance.
The tone of the news conference changed when state Rep. Jay Morris — who was standing behind Fannin — asked Wilson and Fannin how the project would be funded. Wilson said the project would be paid for out through the state Highway Priority Program.
Morris pointedly asked why the state Legislature was not previously informed of $4 million in available funding in the Highway Priority Program.
“All we hear is over and over we don’t have enough money for projects or roads,” said Morris, R-Monroe. “I find out in the last few days that somehow miraculously the DOTD happens to have available money to do this project.”
Morris appeared to refer to state law that requires DOTD to provide the Legislature with a list of Highway Priority Program projects to be undertaken in the upcoming fiscal year. The Highway Priority Program list for the current fiscal year shows the Hwy 3033 bridge in the design phase, one stage away from being financially secure and ready to seek bids.
“They’re not going to do any temporary repairs,” Morris said. “But I’m just happy it will happen eventually because the people living around the lake are deserving of a fix.”
Wilson explained the previous absence of funding for the bridge and spillway project by claiming the Hwy 3033 bridge replacement project was on the “XX” list — a secondary list in the Highway Priority Program. Later, DOTD discovered it had received additional federal funding that could be committed to the Cheniere Lake project, Wilson said. About 30 other states also are receiving additional highway funding.
When asked about whether the $4 million for the Cheniere Lake project would disappear as quickly as it was announced, Wilson said that would not happen.
“The dollars are there for this project to proceed next year,” Wilson said. “So, we won’t have the disruption of waiting for plans to move.”
Wilson said the $4-million project for a new bridge and spillway would provide the same level of service and be more efficient than the original $9-million project that fell through.
“This is an exciting opportunity for us to give some certainty around what’s going to happen with the structure and drainage control structure for the parish,” Wilson said.
At some points during the news conference, a local resident stormed out, muttering, while others peppered Fannin and Wilson with more questions about why the state could not commit $300,000 for emergency, or temporary, repairs of the spillway and drainage control structure.
When asked whether DOTD’s announcement was a satisfactory solution to parish officials’ concerns, Ouachita Parish Police Jury Vice President Jack Clampit said, “No.”
“It doesn’t allow us to put the water back in the lake,” Clampit said. “The state has agreed we need $300,000 for temporary repairs. It’s even in the capital outlay bill, but they want to fund it next year instead of this year. We can’t put water back into the lake without repairs done first and they know it.”
Clampit was referring to the Police Jury’s request that the state provide $300,000 in emergency repair funds.
“The bottom line is, our parish engineer said, unequivocally, he would not sign off on putting the gates back in if the repairs aren’t done,” Clampit said.
When Clampit noted that no water could be added to Cheniere Lake until $300,000 in emergency repairs were made, Fannin disputed Clampit’s claims by arguing that the Legislature had not approved the funding in the state’s capital outlay bill during the regular legislative session that concluded last month.
Clampit shot back, by pointing out that state law allowed a priority two project — like the $300,000 for the Cheniere Lake spillway and drainage control structure — could be moved to a priority one status if it was an emergency and approved by DOTD.
“Maybe I misread, senator,” Clampit said.
Fannin and Wilson did not respond to Clampit’s point.
During an interview with The Ouachita Citizen, Clampit suggested DOTD’s announcement might have been designed to boost some elected officials’ campaigns, because both Edwards and many state lawmakers are expected to stand for re-election this fall.
The state signed a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Police Jury in 2013 to build the original $9-million bridge and spillway, though the funding was yanked away in 2018.
“All of a sudden this money has come out of nowhere? No, it’s been there,” Clampit said “This is a year we had $385 million surplus, but they cut the project because they didn’t have enough money in the budget.”
“Now they want us to sign a new cooperative endeavor agreement for this bridge. How is this not a campaign promise and how are they going to keep their word on this agreement when they didn’t on the first one?”
Clampit has openly voiced his criticism of Fannin, who is running for re-election. Morris as well as West Monroe businessman Matt Parker are expected oppose Fannin as candidates for the Senate district.
During the news conference, Wilson said the new $4-million project would rebuild the bridge and spillway in separate places, instead of keeping the two structures connected as they are now.
DOTD is uncertain on how long construction of the new bridge and spillway will take. “It would be premature to say exactly how long construction will last,” said Wilson “That will come into play during the bidding process.”
Ouachita Citizen news editor Zach Parker contributed to this news report.