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New bridge promise ploy to aid Edwards, allies

The announcement that Louisiana’s state government intends rather than to rehabilitate to build a new Jimmie Davis Highway Bridge over the Red River stirs more questions than answers where politics may interfere with sensible use of taxpayer dollars.

Apparently, barn swallows triggered this change in direction. The federally-protected species insists on building nests on the sides under bridge decking and delayed the project two years while everybody involved figured out how to chase them away. Last month, both the state and contractor gave up, leaving motorists to wonder just how much longer the bridge would remain safe to use.

Then last week, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards dramatically announced that instead he would seek to reallocate the existing $23.4 million in funding for the fixup to a new span. For years denizens particularly in Bossier City dreamed of four lanes crossing, and plans have floated to build another span. Mayor Lo Walker, referring to numbers of at least a decade ago, estimated the cost of that at $60-80 million. Apparently, the $14 million or so in federal funding could transfer over to kick start the process, and state Sen. Barrow Peacock, who always has preferred a new span over redoing the old one, cleverly inserted language to speed up the process in case the state went for new over refurbish.

But too many practical and political questions cast doubt on the wisdom of this approach. For one, nobody knows whether this adds an additional span of two lanes or one of four. The latter would escalate costs dramatically beyond Walker’s forecast, even as the area prefers it. With a transportation backlog in the $12 billion range, although many of those existing projects objectively should have lower priority, as well having as a couple of billion more dollars in capital outlay needs in areas such as higher education maintenance and building, whether the additional funds can come from the state anytime soon seems questionable.

The same goes for the additional federal funding that the state would hope to receive; every dollar it can’t get from the federal government it would have to find. Federal officials and congressmen might not get very excited over doling out big bucks to a project where within 10 miles or so south it plans to build an expensive Interstate 69 crossing.

And then the swallows have a major say in all of this (perhaps more precisely rendered, the federal government in its willingness to put the needs of birds over the needs of people also will impact the outcome). If they don’t vacate the old span, to make it worthwhile the state would have to go for a four-lane structure and the greater amount of time that takes while the present bridge continues to deteriorate, threatening driver safety or closing to leave southern Shreveport and Bossier City without a connection for a while. So if the birds never do flee, does the structure continue to stand and rot?

However, worse is the politics that may come into play. Edwards could use the bridge as a tool to extract votes for higher gasoline taxes out of Republicans Peacock and his House counterpart state Rep. Thomas Carmody, who also has focused on the issue. This extension of Edwards’ strategy to grow state government panders to the state’s inefficient strategy over the decades of building too much new and not enhancing enough existing roads, which has lead to the backlog. Peacock, Carmody, and other area legislators must affirm to their constituents that they will not let this project entice them to make a vote for higher gasoline taxes that only facilitates wasteful past policy.

But even if they do not sell out, the move has another political dimension. Edwards political ally Democrat Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell could use it as a talking point in his Senate campaign, in promising he’ll find the federal money. While unlikely to succeed in that if elected, he still can make that statement and trick the public into thinking something is on the way that could be decades away arriving, if ever. Area state legislator allies of Edwards may try to take credit for delivering it for their electoral careers with the same deceptive outcome. Meanwhile, the existing bridge crumbles into disrepair.

In the final analysis, political calculations designed to enhance Edwards’s agenda, his reelection, and his political allies’ futures drive more this announcement than a desire to improve the traffic experience between the southern ends of Shreveport and Bossier City. If the new bridge comes with a commitment to pay more in taxes, the idea becomes toxic. Area residents should judge the idea that they will see any new bridge anytime soon skeptically, understand its use as a political ploy, and urge rejection of it if tied to tax increases.

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