In early 2017, Strong Towns published an in-depth series of articles on the I-49 Connector, a proposed inner-city freeway project in Shreveport, Louisiana. It wouldn’t be fair to describe this project as everything wrong with transportation planning today. It’s worse than that: it’s everything that was wrong with transportation planning in 1950. Among the zombie ideas rearing their head here:
Run a freeway through the center of a city, accelerating the flight of investment and jobs to the suburbs? Check.
Bulldoze part of a poor, predominantly black neighborhood? Check.
Unaccountable planning process steamrolling community opposition? Check.
Using bogus, voodoo mathematics to claim a positive economic impact for something that will almost certainly have a negative one? Check.
Our work on Shreveport produced some national press coverage, but that’s not what we’re proudest of. It’s that we helped super-charge the activist efforts of Shreveport’s own strong citizens, including residents of the Allendale neighborhood (under the group name Allendale Strong) who would be most directly affected by the I-49 Connector.
As recently as this April, Allendale Strong was still making local headlines with its push for a surface boulevard, which could be lined with businesses, instead of a freeway whose primary beneficiaries would be people who live outside of Shreveport and are not spending money in Shreveport.
We are proud to have helped inspire activism in Shreveport beyond the contentious I-49 Connector issue, as well. Strong Towns member Tim Wright founded Re:Form Shreveport, which has attracted significant local attention and works to promote better citizen engagement, incremental development and grassroots placemaking—helping residents see an affirmative vision of a Shreveport whose prosperity is not dependent on outside investment but stems from the bottom-up initiative of its own citizens.
Unfortunately, there’s still a monstrous disconnect between the needs of Shreveport residents and the priorities of the state legislators and federal bureaucrats who hold the purse strings when it comes to large-scale highway funding. And those higher-ups seem absolutely determined to ram through the I-49 Inner City Connector, a destructive boondoggle based on discredited 1950s thinking.
“Did y'all pull a little fast one on us?”
A June 25th Shreveport Times story reports that Louisiana lawmakers quietly passed a surprise amendment to a surprise funding bill allocating $100 million for the I-49 Connector that was originally intended to go to a different project, the city’s Jimmie Davis Bridge. The revelation prompted a reporter to ask Senator Barrow Peacock of Bossier City whether he had “pulled a fast one.” The bill itself allocated $700 million in one-time settlement money from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The absurdity of this has layers upon layers to unpack. First of all, a one-time pot of settlement money is a terrible way to fund new road projects: as Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn puts it, it’s “the government equivalent of hawking the family silver.” When you build a new road, or widen a road, you are not getting an asset, you are taking on a liability. That road comes with a permanent maintenance obligation: it will eventually need repair. And there won’t (well, hopefully) be another oil-spill settlement around to pay for the resurfacing.
To add a bit of ironic insult to injury, there’s the whole notion of using an oil spill settlement fund, of all things, to build new freeways that will almost certainly induce demand and increase the use of fossil-fuel burning vehicles.
And then there’s the matter of where the funds were diverted from. The $100 million was supposed to be spent on repairing the existing Jimmie Davis Bridge, as well as adding two lanes. The bridge project would have been closer to shovel-ready than the I-49 Connector (which doesn’t have anything approximating a construction start date yet). While we don’t support the added bridge lanes (see: that pesky induced demand thing again), it sounds like repair just might have been a worthy cause:
The Jimmie Davis Bridge has structural issues, needs new pavement and aged bolts need to be replaced. Although the bridge is functionally obsolete and about 25,500 cars drive over it per day, at least one appointed official said it isn't considered dangerous.
“I don’t want to paint the picture that the bridge is going to fall because if it was an unsafe bridge we’d close it," said Shawn Wilson, Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development.
Not unsafe, but cruising toward unsafe. Maintenance would make a whole lot of sense, especially when compared to ramming a brand new freeway through an inner-city neighborhood in order to save long-haul truckers a few minutes.
“It’s like opening packages at Christmas”
So why the insistence on rushing to fund the I-49 Connector? It seems to have everything to do with federal dollars, says the Times in an article from June 4th about the bill’s passage. Coming up with a $100 million state match now allows Louisiana officials to leverage federal dollars for the project:
The state funding makes the project eligible for multiples of matching federal funds for the $547 million project. “Now it's up to the congressional delegation to step up to the plate and secure federal funding,” Peacock said.
Allocating the $100 million to the Jimmie Davis Bridge, it almost goes without saying, would not have resulted in any federal matching funds.
This is Exhibit A in why America has an infrastructure crisis. Local projects are selected and prioritized based not on the urgent needs of local residents or any sort of bottom-up feedback, but on the availability of federal dollars, which are treated as an unqualified good. The June 4th article details a list of 10 highway projects funded by the one-time allocation of oil spill settlement money. It is not clear which projects are new construction and which are maintenance—indicative of how few legislators themselves treat this as an important distinction when it comes to infrastructure spending.
"This is the bill of the session," said Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "It's like opening packages at Christmas."
The gravy train rolls on through Louisiana, despite sound analysis and impassioned community activism—such things don’t seem to be deterring the power brokers who want a big federal check to build an inner-city freeway because they can.
The most telling sentence in the June 4 Shreveport Times article is a glossed-over one that I actually missed the first time because the layout of the page put it right below an advertisement. Nonchalantly stated without elaboration or analysis is this little nugget:
“The state has a $14 billion backlog in infrastructure maintenance.”
Come on, Louisiana. #NoNewRoads.