Word about continuing efforts to build a toll bridge to replace the Jimmie Davis Bridge shook up south Bossier City and some of its politicians, underscored by looming city council elections.
Last week, a firm styling itself Opinion Strategies called from an upstate New York area code to quiz area residents about their approval of a new bridge for State Highway 511 that crosses the Red River. The survey operated in “push poll” fashion, with questions and their ordering designed to entice positive responses.
The impetus for this likely came from a Louisiana Transportation Authority meeting in June. There, the firm United Bridge Partners made an unsolicited pitch to build a four-lane bridge, remove the old two-lane bridge, and then collect the revenue from it for 75 years while not exporting any costs to the state. The more the state contributed up front, the lower the tolls would be, although the company declined to reveal tolling prices.
Building a new span became the preferred option as a result of the state’s decision to build to four-lane capacity, rather than only rehabilitate the existing two lanes. An environmental assessment for rehabilitation was completed, but the change in plans also required supplemental assessment, which the state has completed but awaits final disposition by the federal government.
Both of the area’s Republican state senators were not amused. Barrow Peacock told the panel he explicitly had expressed to the company his opposition, joined by some area local officials, and of his impression that Bossier residents generally opposed it. He also pointed out that federal law prohibited the demolition of the old bridge, with state officials adding that the presence of nesting barn swallows prevented that but local governments had no interest in maintaining the bridge as a pedestrian/cycling path, so the two-new/two-old solution was the only practical one. Robert Mills echoed Peacock’s assessment and pointed out that tolling would fall mainly on residents (who are exempt on the tolled stretch of Highway 1 in south Louisiana), and suggested public input before the idea went any further. In response, the committee tabled the matter with the recommendation of surveying gauge public reaction to tolls before anything else.
You can do all the push-polling you want, but the idea queried seems doomed. Four lanes might encourage more three-plus axle traffic, but both riverside parkways connected to the bridge prohibit that, creating a natural disincentive for the most lucrative vehicles for tolling to use it. Additionally, especially less-frequent users won’t mind detouring a few miles to the Shreveport-Barksdale bridge. A private company involved in this soon would come to the state asking for higher tolls, subsidies, or both.
Out of this carnage, one local politician attempted to squeeze political mileage. Over the past nearly two decades, incumbent Bossier City councilors almost never have attracted challengers – except for Republican Scott Irwin, who has faced one almost every election. For next year’s contest, Irwin already has drawn a formidable challenge from Bossier Parish School Board member Republican Shane Cheatham.
Historically, Irwin never has missed a chance to demagogue the bridge issue, and with his reelection on the line he didn’t whiff this time, either. He renewed criticism of Peacock, who had instigated a move to place $100 million in funds that could have gone to bridge construction instead to Interstate 49 construction in Shreveport to link up its remaining unconnected sectors. This would have added to nearly $24 million already allocated and would exceed the roughly $80 million more needed to complete the bridge project. Irwin thundered to “tell [Peacock] to move that $100 million back and be allocated to build a new Jimmie Davis bridge with zero tolls.”
Of course, in his caterwauling Irwin left out a few details. The $100 million, siphoned from the Macondo well blowout reparations, never had been the bridge’s, but initially had been proposed to head in that direction before legislators settled on the I-49 North Inter-City Connector project.
In sending the cash that way, this leverages $400 million in federal money for its completion that the state otherwise never would have seen. As with the bridge, the Connector is hung up over the environmental assessment, but at the state level. The state has dragged its feet on this for eight years, in June prompting Republican Rep. Mike Johnson to send a letter to Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards asking why and urging greater expedition with this – with one signatory being GOP Bossier City Mayor Lo Walker, who doesn’t seem to mind the $100 million used in that way.
By contrast, Irwin asks to use all state cash, eschewing the possibility of federal dollars, on the bridge. Facing a huge backlog in transportation projects, policy-makers regard free cash as quite precious. In the state’s highway priority program, by law a capacity-constraint project like the bridge takes much lower priority that other needs such as preservation, or even improving urban systems as in the case of the Connector. Even if legislators wanted to draw down on the $100 million for elsewhere, it likely would go to projects other than refurbishing the bridge, much less adding another span.
Which state legislators signaled earlier this year. In one of his rare trips this year to the Capitol, Shreveport Democrat state Rep. Cedric Glover – whose district includes the Connector – filed a bill to make the shift wanted by Irwin, about which his colleagues thought so little it never even gained a hearing.
Neither the Connector nor bridge are in the state’s current surface transportation improvement program through 2022. Irwin misleads the public into thinking shovels would start turning dirt on the banks of the Red River as soon as a cash transfer would occur. Given the state’s priorities as they exist and possible timelines involved, even though the process of acquiring a federal match would take more effort because the road is designated only as a state highway, that route more likely promises quicker and certainly cheaper project completion.
Not that this will stop Irwin, who has no responsibility over this matter, from grandstanding on the issue. Naturally enough; after all, it is election season.