Sep. 29—A decade ago, in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's zeal for New Orleans to build a new passenger terminal on the north side of Louis Armstrong International Airport, little attention was paid to driving there.
So, by time the $1.3 billion terminal opened in 2019, construction was only just starting on Interstate 10's flyover ramps for the airport and reconfigured interchange at Loyola Drive in Kenner.
But if New Orleans and Louisiana administrators were late out of the gate on the I-10 project, the Legislature showed no such tardiness in naming the end product. In 2018, before all the I-10 funding was even secured, lawmakers designated it the Henry A. Smith Jr. Memorial Road.
Smith, who died in 2011, was a lifelong resident of St. Charles Parish, a 26-year member of the New Orleans Aviation Board, a diehard Democrat, a philanthropist and the founder of what is now the Magnolia Companies, a St. Rose-based conglomerate involved in marine dredging, construction, housing, disaster recovery and other fields.
It's unclear from the legislation, Act 460 of the 2018 regular session, whether Smith's name applies to the flyover ramp from westbound I-10 to the airport, which opens Friday at 7 a.m.; to the flyover ramp from the airport to eastbound I-10, which is expected to open in a few weeks; or both. The law merely cites "the proposed airport flyover road or ramp for the Louis Armstrong International Airport."
What is clear, from legislative records, is that Smith's name was not the first choice.
Act 460 resulted from a bill sponsored by Rep. Kirk Talbot, R- River Ridge. In a two-minute hearing on March 13, 2018, Talbot persuaded the House Transportation Committee to name the ramp for the late Sen. Hank Lauricella of Harahan, who spent 32 years in the Legislature, whose district included the airport and whose family company, beginning with his father, was a major developer of Old Jefferson and Elmwood.
"He was a larger-than-life figure," Talbot told the committee.
The House voted 84-0 for the bill. But the Senate Transportation Committee had other ideas. In a two-minute hearing on April 30, 2018, it switched Lauricella's name to the Earhart Expressway, which connects New Orleans to Elmwood, and put Smith's name on the airport ramp.
Smith's grandson, Sen. Gary Smith Jr., D- Norco, a member of the committee, told the panel that was more appropriate because of Lauricella's connection to Elmwood and Smith's tenure as the longest-serving member of the Aviation Board.
Talbot, who now holds the Senate seat that Lauricella occupied, said Wednesday he didn't recall the reason for the change but that there was no resistance behind the scenes. Gary Smith said it was Rep. Joe Stagni, R- Kenner, who suggested the change, to honor each former official in a fitting way.
Small brown road signs bearing Lauricella's name were erected on the Earhart Expressway some years ago. It's likely that similar signs bearing Smith's name will appear some day at the airport flyover ramp — although at no cost to the state budget.
That's because the law says the Department of Transportation and Development must use "local or private monies," and no more than $1,680 per sign.
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