It’s The Incompetence, Stupid

Here’s a fun story from yesterday illuminating the problem policymakers in Louisiana are going to have as they continue demanding more in tax dollars to fund what can only be called governmental incompetence…

There are no designs on paper to allow buses to pull off of Government Street once the highway is trimmed from four lanes to one travel lane in each direction, though officials are hoping to fix an issue that could lead to annoying congestion and frustrated drivers.

CATS confirmed “the current plan, as we understand it, does not have planned bus pull-outs,” however both bus company and city officials said Thursday, they hope to find ways to fix the potential problems.

“[The city is] looking at some areas working with CATS to see if we can acquire some pieces of property to construct bus pull-offs,” Fred Raiford, with the city of Baton Rouge said.  Warning, though, that “traffic could be impacted  during certain times of the day.”

CATS also added: “We have discussed this issue with City officials and DOTD on several occasions, expressing that a place for buses to safely pick up and drop off riders is of the utmost importance.”

Work to eliminate a travel lane in each direction – cunningly dubbed a “road diet” by those backing the project – started this week.

Officials hope reducing the number of travel lanes would force commuters to parallel throughways such as North Boulevard or Florida Street. Local drivers would have a more laissez-faire drive and, the dream is, spur a revitalization of the city’s Mid City community – hopefully to rival New Orleans’ Magazine Street.

They want to cut a major part of Government Street, which is a major east-west artery leading into downtown Baton Rouge, from four lanes down to two. This is the plan to relieve traffic congestion – less lanes to travel on. Tax dollars were spent on making Government Street less able to carry traffic.

And city buses travel up and down Government Street, so with it being two lanes if you get stuck behind a bus you’ll have to stop every time the bus stops and you can’t go around it.

This is what passes for infrastructure management in Baton Rouge. If it’s not incompetence, we welcome an alternative characterization.

And while that popped out, J.R. Ball had a column at the Baton Rouge Business Report touting a speech former Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard, who at one time was the chairman of the Louisiana Democrat Party, gave at a confab of muckety-mucks this week…

Which is why it was so fabulous that at a power breakfast conclave last week—where leaders across the Baton Rouge business, political and community spectrum were basking in the tax-cutting, regulatory-slashing glow of a morning in Donald Trump’s America—that Bernhard didn’t give a damn who was around.

Moments after Rep. Garret Graves and uber-economist Loren Scott celebrated the joy that is 1) Trump and Congressional Republicans giving big business and the bigly wealthy a massive tax cut and 2) a possible Louisiana economic miracle thanks to the Trump administration slashing business, environmental and workplace safety regulations at an unprecedented rate, Bernhard ambled to the mike and dropped a sobering 10-pound bag of counterprogramming.

The celebration was over. Now, with Bernhard’s booming voice rifling through the Crowne Plaza ballroom, it was a call to action.

We’ve got problems, people, he told the audience, before rattling off a list of cities—such as Phoenix, Austin, Nashville, Atlanta and Raleigh—that share the common bond of being a state capital with a flagship university and a major, driving force industry. All ingredients, he believes, to be that proverbial great American city.

“The sad truth is that we don’t stack up. That’s a fact,” he said bluntly. “So where are the missing links, and how do we do better?”

His three-pronged solution? Invest in K-12 and higher education, pump money into improving the region’s crumbling and inadequate infrastructure, and get serious about a crime problem in a city that last year had more than 100 homicides.

Got that? Bernhard’s pushing a gas tax to fix the roads.

Meaning more money poured into more incompetence in infrastructure management. Surely they’ll get it right this time, right?

This time we’ll get a bridge south of downtown instead of one connecting piney woods to cane fields. Right?

There’s a reason the gas taxes Bernhard and so many others among our smart set have been pushing don’t pass. It’s that the people of the area and the state have seen what its public sector does with the tax dollars they’ve already got, and those results don’t reflect progress. They reflect incompetence.

Yesterday there was a little different controversy about infrastructure in the Baton Rouge area. Sen. John Kennedy poked his nose into another unmet infrastructure need, namely the forever-unbuilt Comite River Diversion Canal project. Kennedy made an appearance at a meeting of the Comite River Diversion Canal Project Task Force and put out a press release suggesting that the recent $8 trillion run-up in stock prices means the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund has a surplus which could be used for infrastructure, and noted that Louisiana could cash in $175 million of that surplus to fund the state’s portion of the Diversion Canal, with the federal portion then becoming a top priority of Louisiana’s congressional delegation.

Kennedy often has “creative” ideas like this. Some of them have merit, some of them don’t.

This one was immediately panned by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said “this is someone else’s money.” Edwards’ position is there’s a bill awaiting passage in the Senate which will fund the diversion canal, and Kennedy should go and pass that bill.

But despite representations he makes from time to time Edwards has done very little to move the diversion canal project forward since its absence became a sore subject following the floods of August 2016, the damage from which could well have been attenuated had the diversion canal, which has been on the drawing board since the early 1980’s, been built.

Edwards isn’t really the problem with the diversion canal, though he’s certainly not the solution. The Task Force meeting yesterday gave a perfect demonstration of the incompetence that inflicts Louisiana’s infrastructure management. It turns out that the state board established to shepherd the diversion canal project to completion, something called the Amite River Basin Commission, collects some $2.2 million per year in property taxes from residents in a taxing district established in the area the canal would benefit. The ARBC has been around for a very long time and the word is it’s more or less the best board to get yourself appointed to – it does virtually nothing, pays a cushy per diem and even throws a hell of a Christmas party.

Not to mention it’s a great gig to be its executive counsel – a job held by our buddy, convicted bribe-taker Larry Bankston, for a $175-per-hour rate.

Toward the end of the Task Force hearing Thursday was a fairly long exchange in which several members of the Task Force – and particularly Sens. Dale Erdey, Regina Barrow and Bodi White – took the ARBC’s management to task for a letter it sent in December to the state’s Department of Transportation and Development pulling out of a cooperative endeavor agreement in which the two entities would pool resources to buy land necessary to build the canal. This happened, supposedly, because ARBC doesn’t have the funds for a 50-50 match with DOTD’s contribution as required by the agreement and DOTD wouldn’t come to the table and negotiate a more realistic deal.

So a letter went out from ARBC telling DOTD the whole thing was kaput, and the legislators – who weren’t made aware of the stalled negotiations and pointed out that since they’re the ones who control DOTD’s funding they’ve got the leverage to get a deal done – were more than a little pissed off about it.

White was especially steamed, noting that “bullshit like this” is the reason most of Louisiana’s levee boards had been scuppered after Katrina, and grilled Bankston, ARBC executive director Dietmar Rietscher (whose salary alone is $110,000 per year, plus benefits, so far for a job not building a canal) and its chairman Ben Babin about its finances and spending. Let’s just say the performance in answering his questions wasn’t as impressive as it could have been.

Video of the whole thing is archived at the Louisiana House of Representatives website. See it here; Kennedy’s presentation starts about an hour and five minutes in, and the grilling of the ARBC kicks in around two hours and 40 minutes in.

The point being that all you hear from the Jim Bernhards, John Bel Edwardses and others is how Louisiana’s infrastructure problems require infusions of cash – and major ones – in order to solve. But for the rest of us, who are constantly asked to tax increases to fix the state’s lousy infrastructure, what we’d like to see beforehand is some evidence that the near-comic incompetence of the people in charge of our current resources will abate.

Maybe we ought to walk before we run on infrastructure. Maybe we ought to demand the people we’re giving these resources to give us a little less incompetence and a little more results for what we’re sending them. And then we can talk about more resources.

Hopefully the crowd in charge understands that no, the public isn’t interested in “road diets” and political infighting over a canal that should have been built 20 years ago when they’re trying to dig deeper into our wallets.

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