Apparently on the cusp of his declaring for the Louisiana governor’s race, Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards cabinet member Shawn Wilson received an unwelcome parting gift that only adds to the ammunition against such a foray.
This week, the Department of Transportation and Development that Wilson departed shortly thereafter announced the results of bidding to build a new four-lane Jimmie Davis Bridge over the Red River connecting Shreveport and Bossier City and to retire the old two-lane structure into a linear park. This treatment came as a result of the span’s deteriorating condition and takeover by endangered birds, meaning neither extensive refurbishment of it nor its demolition could occur and a new structure is required.
The winning bid of two came in a shade under $362 million. But the state estimated a cost of only $223 million, and with the lowest so far in excess of the state’s guess the whole process stops not only to conduct a review of the state’s numbers. That may trigger starting the bid process over, but it also bodes that more money likely will have to be corralled for this to come to fruition.
History suggests this throws a huge spanner into the works that will cause a major delay. Bossier City suffered the same over a year ago regarding an upgrade to Interstate 20. As in that case, the roughly 50 percent gap between estimate and bid was well above the 10 percent tolerance range, to account for unpredicted price inflation, when over which a review must occur. With estimated overages about a quarter of the size of the bridge project, five months ago DOTD announced it would have to be redesigned five months ago. No progress has been made since.
This suggests that the new Jimmie Davis bridge project, contrary to hopes it might commence later this year and be finished within the next four, may not begin for some time to come. Of particular note is where the state will come up with the additional scratch if the design isn’t downscaled or somehow materials suddenly get a lot cheaper. Republican state Sen. Barrow Peacock labored immensely to convince colleagues to commit $100 million to it, and then the federal borrowing orgy from the Joe Biden-Nancy Pelosi-Chuck Schumer spending bacchanal allowed the state to come up with the other over $100 million in federal money.
But that borrowing also triggered the highest inflation in four decades which sent the project’s cost spiraling upwards and now leaves the state scrambling to find another $130 million or so. And with inflation raging for nearly a year-and-a-half, significantly higher prices wasn’t an unknown that would have prevented its inclusion in any policy debates about funding for the bridge or in DOTD forecasts of costs.
This bad news hitting Wilson on his way out is just one of a long string of controversial and costly decisions Wilson has been a part of, if not made, in his long tenure at DOTD (having joined it in 2005 as a senior adviser). Of recent note, costs continue to escalate and the time horizon stretched farther for completion of Interstate 10 widening in Baton Rouge that has become politically toxic with Wilson becoming the poster child for the inconvenience caused by his choices. Also during his tenure at the top, poor planning by his agency and New Orleans created for going on four years a traffic nightmare with higher costs when Armstrong Airport decamped a bit north still not resolved.
Going back further, the TIMED project continues to limp along. Wilson joined the upper DOTD ranks a year after this, which collects four extra cents of gasoline taxes to complete 17 projects (two eventually removed), was supposed to have been completed. It’s still two projects short.
Meanwhile, with the state’s transportation backlog having grown during his tenure, until recently Wilson has advocated for tax increases to address that rather than spending reforms that could save nearly $100 million in DOTD expenses that could go to paring that wish list. Now he has shifted his tune towards fee hikes, and continues to stump for wasteful spending such as high-speed rail.
The bridge fiasco serves as just another reminder of Wilson’s preference for bigger government bloated further by his management that he promises to bring the state if made its chief executive. It’s not a great advertisement to kick off a campaign.