LETTER: Louisiana’s future demands 21st century approach to transportation

This letter first appeared on thecurrentla.com, January 24, 2024. Click here to view original.

Dear Governor Landry,

On behalf of the Louisiana 4 Corners Coalition for Transportation Planning Reform, we would like to wish you a Happy New Year. It was great to hear you say that you value different opinions, respect different ideologies and invite new ideas during your inaugural address. It was also great to hear that you will welcome us to your table.

Our coalition is committed to helping Louisiana become a leader in transportation planning reforms that serve the well-being, resilience and prosperity of local communities. We represent many of those voices that you identified as longing to be heard. To that end, we sincerely hope you will engage us and embrace a bipartisanship approach during your term as governor.

We were encouraged to learn that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LaDOTD) hired futurist Matt Griffin to help envision the state’s transportation future. He said that our government’s broken transportation planning system can’t be fixed by following the status quo. And we agree. After all, the status quo created the broken system that our residents experience today. It’s obvious. Louisiana needs a fresh approach.

This is what we’ve learned about the state’s transportation spending:

  • Louisiana prioritizes expanding highway infrastructure. We cannot afford that without placing significant tax increases on a shrinking and increasingly poor, hardworking population.
  • Highway expansion saddles Louisiana with debt and absorbs money that could be used for more pressing needs.
  • Adding more highways increases the backlog of unfunded road and highway maintenance projects and prioritizes new debt-funded mega-projects over the upkeep of existing infrastructure.

Highway expansion doesn’t solve congestion, it creates it. Increasing car travel to grow economic activity also doesn’t work. It creates sprawl. And sprawl requires the construction of more infrastructure. That results in even more taxes to fund decades of maintenance costs on unneeded projects. It also increases the financial burden of owning a car. That’s one reason why more and more young people are no longer interested in automobile ownership.

Selling more driving as a benefit is, at best, outdated. Clearly, planning for an increase in the number of vehicle miles traveled comes at a cost. Those old, aspirational values have created and worsened some of our current challenges. Rush hour gridlock, urban heat islands, greenhouse gas emissions, adverse health impacts, pedestrian deaths, devalued real estate, the impoverishment of neighborhoods, and higher public transit costs are among a long list of negative impacts that have resulted from poor transportation planning.

Moreover, the wasteful consumption of resources is stealing opportunity from our children. And it could cause us to miss out on federal dollars and opportunities in the future.

That’s why we want change.

We want to see a shift away from a bloated, wasteful, transportation-industrial complex that fuels economic and societal decline. We want a right-sized system that prioritizes the well-being of local communities and focuses on good social, environmental and economic outcomes that uphold the dignity of all Louisianians.

It’s time for the state to stop building urban highways, investing in transportation infrastructure that is dangerous to drivers and pedestrians and makes our cities poorer. And we must convert stroads – an awful progeny of a street and a road – into wealth-building places that foster connectivity, enjoy robust transit, and support modes of movement like walking and biking.

With more funding available than ever before, we can address the real priorities of 21st century transportation. We must:

  • Invest in transportation solutions that reduce our dependence on automobile travel
  • Use the latest transportation modeling methods
  • Require full cost-benefit analyses
  • Properly assess future maintenance needs and consider all the impacts of proposed transportation projects on local communities
  • Adopt fix-it-first policies that move transportation funding away from highway expansion and towards the repair of existing roads
  • Review the need of key transportation initiatives and provide adequate funding to mitigate any negative impacts before anything is built
  • Invest in research and data collection to better track and respond to changes in how people travel
  • Invest in other transportation options. We can no longer simply provide a blank check to our transportation authorities to spend on projects that don’t benefit the community.

Other cities have shown us that driving less leads to better transportation options for everyone, not just automobile owners. That’s why we should prioritize investment into pedestrian safety, bicycle infrastructure and multi-modal transit. Besides that, transit is cheaper to build, has a positive rate of return and better serves our elderly and disabled citizens.

Many Louisianians want to drive less. They know it’s key to improving health, wealth and community. They know that driving less leads to fewer emissions, a reduction in air pollution and better health outcomes for everyone. Air pollution from transportation causes tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year and makes us more vulnerable to a range of health problems. In one study, the National Library of Medicine found that longer driving times were associated with higher odds for smoking, insufficient physical activity, short sleep, obesity and worse physical and mental health.  So, it was good to learn that as a student of biology you have pledged to seek and heed scientific findings.

It’s also worth noting that the National Association of Realtors has found that home buyers are willing to pay more to live in walkable neighborhoods. In other words, walkable areas fetch higher home prices. We have seen that highway expansion can cause irreparable harm to communities. They force the relocation of homes and businesses. They sever street connections for pedestrians and cars. They reduce the base of taxable property and diminish overall community value. In summary, they strip communities of their vitality.

We know that walkable neighborhoods support locally owned small businesses and encourage growth. They hark back to the beauty of the traditional and historic development patterns of Louisiana that have been lost to modern car-centric sprawl.

As we shape our cities, our cities shape us. That’s why we must stop the threats that are posed by scary stroads and zombie highway projects like the proposed expansion of I-49 in Lafayette and Shreveport along with the proposed highway that continues to haunt the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. As a student of environmental and sustainable resources, we trust you will uphold the truth about environmental issues and seriously consider the threat these proposed projects would pose to the Chicot aquifer, Bayou Bienvenue and more.

We must also repair the harm imposed by facilities that have disconnected neighborhoods and gutted communities like the segment of I-10 that cut through Old South Baton Rouge and the Claiborne Expressway that eviscerated downtown New Orleans.

Right-sizing our transportation infrastructure is necessary for the future of all Louisiana cities. But that will require rethinking our relationship with transportation, the planning processes and how we will fund our transportation infrastructure. If we continue doing the things we’ve always done, we will continue to produce poor outcomes. It’s time for stronger citizen involvement and time to prioritize Louisianians and their values over highways and dangerous roads. The change may not be easy, but it will be well worth it.

Very sincerely,

4 Corners Coalition for Transportation Planning Reform

  • Mary Jo Allen, Sierra Club Delta Chapter, Acadiana Group, Lafayette
  • Angelle Bradford, Sierra Club Delta Chapter, New Orleans
  • Debra Campbell, A Community Voice, New Orleans
  • Nick Lantana, Advocate, Baton Rouge
  • Kim Mitchell, Center & Institute for Community Renewal, Shreveport
  • Roger Peak, Sierra Club Delta Chapter, Acadiana Group, Lafayette
  • John Perkins, Allendale Strong, Shreveport
  • Clancy Ratliff, Advocate, Lafayette
  • Danielle Richard, Advocate, Shreveport
  • Kash Schriefer, Sierra Club Delta Chapter, Acadiana Group, Lafayette
  • Amy Stelly, Claiborne Avenue Alliance Design Studio, New Orleans
  • Mike Waldon, Advocate, Lafayette (now Delaware)
  • Dorothy Wiley, Allendale Strong, Shreveport