While heads nodded in approval, one expert at the first Connect conference for southeast Louisiana transportation improvement stated facts: “You can’t build your way out of congestion,” Walter Brooks said. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get to the same place every time.”
That bit of wisdom underlies the problem of doing something different in transportation policy — other than build highways that congeal into jams even as millions of dollars are spent on more lanes. The vast majority of money is spent on highway projects while crumbs go to alternatives, from public transit to bike lanes or sidewalks.
In Louisiana, we’re going to the same place fast. And expensively.
While Brooks, head of New Orleans’ regional planning agency, emphasized efforts in the urban area to promote alternative transportation, little is done elsewhere to make the ideas of planners into reality. Nods to “complete streets” and other ways to plan for a more complex transportation future are left to smart-growth conferences.
The real money is only in highways.
Brooks and others decried the decision of Gov. Bobby Jindal to turn down essentially 100 percent federal funding for commuter rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Brooks explained the complex web of relationships among federal and state agencies that have to be navigated to fund any kind of rail service. Free money, as that rejected in the stimulus program by Jindal, just isn’t going to come along very often, Brooks noted.
The recent crisis in the funding for Baton Rouge’s bus service is another example of how political will is lacking. The crisis originated in changes in state funding for mass transit, to begin with a pitiable portion of the giant budget of the state Department of Transportation and Development. But the cut to Baton Rouge’s funding in the state formula attracted little to no opposition or even criticism from Baton Rouge legislators, including those representing poor areas that are heavily transit-dependent.
Because highways seem the only political constituency in transportation, there is no will to redirect cash to other, much more promising alternatives, as we run out of money, gas and land for superhighways.
The Connect coalition of community organizations and business groups in southeastern Louisiana has some influence, but seemingly not enough to change things. On the positive side, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has pushed for a greater emphasis on transportation planning to promote “liveability” in American communities.
Breaking the pattern of the way things always have been done will require a lot more follow-through, including political muscle.