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Transportation Jihad 

Every now and then, Gov. Mike Foster likes to call for a "jihad." Well, Louisiana might need a holy war to break through the political gridlock that has stalled development of its transportation infrastructure. And if Foster's definition of jihad translates into more executive action by the governor himself, we're all for it.

For too long, intra-parish political turf wars have stalled development of two major transportation projects critical for the economic development of our city and state: the Millennium Port and the Louis Armstrong International Airport.

"It is well past time for a jihad on transportation," says Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council. "Front and center is where the governor should be. ... Transportation infrastructure is key to economic development. Unless we have an airport that has an additional runway and the [port] has added capacity to compete for containerized shipping cargo, we will be dead water."

First, the $1.3 billion Millennium Port. Louisiana is supposedly racing to become the leading deep-water port in the Gulf South for larger, containerized cargo ships -- but we're not moving fast enough. Texas is already beginning to expand two existing ports, but Louisiana is still mired in studies and Balkanized feuding.

In a recent letter to Foster, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and U.S. Rep. David Vitter, R-Metairie, blasted the state for dragging its feet on the proposed deep-water project. Three years of squabbling between local port authorities over the proposal could cause Louisiana to miss out on federal money to support the state's greatest economic development project "in our lifetime," Landrieu and Vitter wrote. Our congressional delegation needs a consensus plan -- fast. The payoff is anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 jobs.

Every 1 percent of the share of trade the proposed port brings translates into a $700 million statewide impact. And experts say that the closer the facility is built to the Gulf of Mexico, the better.

William Coyle, chief of the Millennium Port Authority, says he hopes to trim a list of about seven sites to two or three in the next few months. The leading contenders are reportedly in Plaquemines Parish near the mouth of the Mississippi River and at Port Fourchon in Lafourche Parish. Foster has set a deadline of Dec. 15 to pick a site.

Any site will need massive infrastructure improvements by state and federal governments. Senate President John Hainkel, R-New Orleans, has suggested creating one statewide authority to coordinate all Louisiana ports. But Hainkel admits it would be difficult to muster the two-thirds votes needed to weaken the existing port authorities' power by the creating one super-board.

Hainkel sums up the Millennium quest quite well. "If we put as much effort into this as we did with that goofy Harrah's or the New Orleans Saints, we'd be better off," Hainkel says. New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff, meanwhile, calls the Landrieu-Vitter letter "a wake-up call to get the damn thing done."

We agree. Gov. Foster should make his decision as soon as possible.

Foster should also step into the 4-year intra-parish gridlock over developing a third runway for Armstrong Airport. Owned by New Orleans but located in Kenner, the airport needs to build a third runway that would extend into neighboring St. Charles Parish.

Like the port, the runway is vital to the state's economy. The expansion is needed to accommodate a projected increase from 10 million to 13 million annual visitors with the scheduled expansion of the Morial Convention Center by 2007. "You are going to have a bottleneck," Kabacoff warns. "Even if we started today, it takes nine years to get the next runway done."

Kabacoff, a member of a blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Superdome Commission that seeks to re-engineer the domed stadium, says the panel is eyeing light rail connections from the airport to the Dome. But Kenner and St. Charles parish officials are resisting a third airport runway, amid neighborhood concerns over increased pollution and noise. An environmental impact study is about a year away.

Roy Williams, the new director of the airport who recently helped rejuvenate the airport in Daytona, Ohio, has been scoring diplomatic points with New Orleans' suburban neighbors. We welcome him to our city and to the fray. But he can only do so much given the limits of the airport governing structure.

The airport was supposed to be a top priority of Mayor Marc Morial's second term. Morial staged a two-day summit, but there has been no appreciable follow-through. Instead, he is pursuing a third term under the banner of education reform.

Foster must start now to build a consensus on how to make the third runway a reality. "The political community has to figure out how to do it, that's all," Kabacoff says. "It's just time to move. So let's push."

That's also true of the Millennium Port.

So all right, Governor, we're ready to jihad.

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