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Work together to solve highway-induced flooding

They may have a point, but good luck in ever getting the state to pay off or change its ways, so compromise should be the order of the day.

Walker Mayor Rick Ramsey feels the state’s construction of Interstate 12 exacerbated flooding the town received in the middle of the month. Specifically, the retaining wall of the east-west highway running down the median appeared to trap water that pooled into the municipality. More aggravatingly for Ramsey, years ago he requested that the state’s Department of Transportation and Development provide more drainage underneath, which largely went ignored.

Present DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, who served as chief of staff of the agency almost a dozen years prior to taking the helm earlier this year, as much as admitted Ramsey’s proposition. Framing the argument in expectancy value terms, he said the decision to put in the barrier and drainage associated with I-12 did not factor in such a severe weather event because of its remoteness in happening. He hoped the department could work with those aggrieved by the outcome rather than have the controversy go to court, as Ramsey as threatened.

In all likelihood, the rigid barriers that typically have relatively short and narrow slits at their bottoms to permit drainage about which Ramsey complained the state installed at least a couple of decades ago, prior to the use of cable barriers in America. States began adopting this technology about 20 years ago, but only in the last decade has Louisiana begun using these, one of the last several to do so.

It makes great sense, for although in many situations a line has to go down both shoulders of a divided road, they cost only $12-15 a foot compared to $80 or more a foot for concrete (another kind of barrier, semi-rigid such as guardrails, costs $28-33 a foot). These also at least match if not exceed other kinds of barriers in safety provided and in minimizing damage to vehicles that strike these. The only real disadvantage comes in higher maintenance costs, especially after being struck, given the reduced sturdiness compared to concrete walls.

Ramsey says the city would drop the idea to sue DOTD if the state agency removes the concrete wall along the interstate median, admits it contributed to his city's flooding and if the Federal Emergency Management Agency increases the benefits for the city's flood victims. He had better prepare to sue.

At a minimum of $125,000 a mile to install cables on both sides when barriers already exist and the state has a roads backlog in the billions of dollars, the wall will stay. FEMA will give what it gives, although one possibility that might give everybody an out would use FEMA mitigation grant money to tear down that wall and install cabling.

If that happens, maybe Walker ought to take that deal. In 1983, Tangipahoa Parish residents won a similar kind of suit over I-12’s placement, and have yet to see a dime. That’s because the Louisiana Constitution allows the state to limit its payouts when it loses tort cases, even as state and local governments cannot claim immunity. It leaves the decision if and when to pay in the hands of the majoritarian branches.

Typically, they dole out judgment money like from an eyedropper. For reference sake, this year legislators filed 42 bills to pay up. None passed. Wilson knows this, so the state would expect only to spend on defense of the suit and it does nothing to force his hand. Walker could do it, but practically speaking would waste local taxpayer dollars regardless of the official outcome.

In order to create a win-win situation, Wilson should angle for FEMA mitigation funding to swap out barriers, and Walker needs to take its lumps without agitating for some kind of increased compensation in the hope the problem becomes potentially reduced in the future. We’ll see if each party takes this responsible path.

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