$255M in federal funds for Baton Rouge drainage projects at risk

    As Capital Region residents continue to deal with the aftermath of the June 6 thunderstorm that flooded some neighborhoods with nearly seven inches of rain in less than one hour, hundreds of millions of federal dollars earmarked for projects to improve drainage in East Baton Rouge Parish are sitting idle in Washington D.C. Why? Because city and state officials have been unable to scare up the $2 million a year in matching funds necessary to get the projects underway.

    U.S. Rep. Garret Graves helped secure the $255 million in federal funding nearly a year ago from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the East Baton Rouge Parish Flood Control Project, which has been on the books for some 30 years but was never funded until last July.

    It calls for widening, deepening, cleaning out and otherwise improving five key drainage canals that run through the parish: Blackwater Bayou, Beaver Bayou, Jones Creek, Ward’s Creek and Bayou Fountain. It’s unique because the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t typically fund such specifically local drainage projects. Had the work been completed prior to the June 6 storm officials say the level of flash flooding could have been significantly reduced.

    “The flooding we saw last Thursday demonstrates the urgency of this,” Graves says.

    But the projects haven’t moved forward because neither the state nor the city has put up a local match, which amounts to $65 million. While that may sound like more than either cash-strapped government can afford, the commitment is not nearly as onerous as it sounds.

    For one thing, the money doesn’t have to be paid until after the projects are completed, which would be  around 2024 if construction started today.

    More significantly, the money can be paid back over 30 years, meaning the actual amount needed on an annual basis is just a little over $2 million.

    On top of that, Graves was able to negotiate the local match down from the customary 35% of the total cost to 25%.

    “That’s a really good deal,” he says. “That ten percent difference, actually, is huge.”

    City parish officials say they want to help fund the projects but don’t have enough money to put skin in the game. Even just $2 million a year?

    “I’ve asked that question and I understand it doesn’t sound like much,” says Fred Raiford, city-parish director of transportation and drainage. “But it’s about being able to commit to a funding source every year for 30 years and our sales tax revenues haven’t gotten where we need them to be. We’re looking at a zero-based budget again for the fourth year in a row.”

    A spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards notes that the city-parish is the official sponsor of the project at the local level but says, “The state recognizes the importance of this project funding and … will continue to look for ways to assist in moving the project forward.

    City-parish Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel says the mayor and governor have been in contact and will work together to find a solution.

    “We are not going to let this money go to waste,” he says. “It’s been too hard fought and it’s too important.”

    Graves has reached out to both and urged haste because federal money left unspent is only safe for so long—especially with so many other flood mitigation needs across an increasingly flood-prone country.

    “We are concerned about the vulnerability of these dollars,” Graves says. “I think we have a couple of months but we’re starting to get worried because the vultures are circling.”

    (Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a comment from the governor’s office.)

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