Councilman Mike Walker defended his decision to oppose Mayor-President Kip Holden’s capital improvements tax plan last month and introduced a plan to fund parish bridge replacement to a group of engineers Monday.
As the keynote speaker at a luncheon for the American Council of Engineering Companies’ Baton Rouge Chapter, Walker also mentioned he was considering running for mayor-president next year and took a few digs at the Holden administration.
Walker, who serves as mayor pro tem on the Metro Council, said he did not support the bond issue because it was “too light on details and lacked the public trust.”
“The plan was hastily constructed and many of the council’s basic questions about the plan could not be answered,” Walker said.
“My not supporting this bond proposal should not, as some have suggested, be construed as being anti-progress or anti-development,” he said.
ACEC Executive Director Daniel Mobley said his organization met with council members before the vote to express their support of Holden’s $748 million tax and bond plan.
He said the weeks leading up to the council’s final vote that killed the measure were an “interesting political process to watch.”
“We need the mayor and the Metro Council to find common ground because this is what the people of Baton Rouge need,” Mobley said of the failed tax plan. “The tough side is that right now everyone is looking at finances and asking, ‘Could you do more with less?’ Unfortunately on infrastructure, you can’t.”
Walker told the group that since the capital improvements package failed, the council has taken leadership roles to address some of the infrastructure and public safety issues.
Walker said he’d like to fix deteriorating bridges by including them in the parish’s Green Light Plan, which is a voter approved, half-cent sales tax funded road program.
He said voters could be asked to extend the half-cent sales tax for 10 more years, until 2040, and amend the projects list to include bridges.
In a letter sent to Walker on Friday, however, Bond Counsel Richard Leibowitz said extending the sales tax could only yield about $17 million dollars to pay for bridge improvements or replacements.
At that point bridges could continue to be paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. But Leibowitz also cautioned that amending the Green Light Plan to include additional bridge work “will significantly impact the ability of the Parish of East Baton Rouge to complete” the current list of projects.
“Because of the magnitude of the bridge improvements or replacement projects, a new property tax or sales tax might be the only practicable alternative,” Leibowitz wrote.
Bridges were a crucial component of Holden’s tax plan, which he touted as a public safety necessity.
If passed, the tax plan would have called for $80 million to replace 78 parish bridges within 10 years.
Contacted later, Holden said he did not think voters would agree with amending the Green Light Plan.
“We have 17 more projects to be completed between now and next year, and they cannot be held up because we have critical transportation needs,” Holden said. “The public did not vote for the Green Light program to fund bridges.”
In his speech, Walker also suggested that Holden’s administration, in conjunction with the state Department of Transportation and Development, may have closed bridges in certain districts to retaliate against members who voted against the proposed tax and bond issue.
He quipped, “I will take the current administration and the state at their word that it was only coincidence that bridges were suddenly in risk of collapse just hours after the council vote was taken on the bond issue.”
He explained that Councilman Scott Wilson made the motion to remove the tax plan from the agenda so it would not be considered, and Walker seconded the motion.
“Now we each have three bridges in our district that are all of a sudden in need of desperate repair,” Walker said. “Now I’m sure that that’s just the way it happened, but just in case it’s not, that tactic is not going to get you anywhere.”
When asked if DOTD inspectors were influenced by the mayor or the bond vote to close bridges more aggressively, DOTD spokeswoman Jodi Conachen said, “no.”
She noted that recent inspections are part of routine biennial bridge checks, which is typical for all public bridges.
Interim Public Works Director William Daniel took issue with the comment.
“It’s difficult to believe Councilman Walker would make such a reckless statement regarding bridge closures when our duty and that of DOTD is to protect the public,” Daniel said. “We will close any bridge DOTD or City-Parish considers unsafe.”
He also said that in 2009 and 2010 a total of 13 bridges were closed because inspections determined that bridges were unsafe. Nine of those bridges have since been reopened.
Walker also told the group he was considering a run for mayor-president in 2012, but has not decided whether he would go through with it.
Walker, in his third term as a councilman, is term limited.
He also extended an open invitation to the engineering community to his office to discuss ways to improve infrastructure, while taking a jab at Holden.
“Walk through that open door, there are no locks on it,” he said. “We’re (the council) solutions driven, we have our eye on the ball and our hands are never tied. You’ll hear that coming from someone else, but our hands are never tied.”
After the council voted against sending the bond issue to voters, Holden told the media his “hands were tied” as far as being able to effectively address infrastructure in the parish.