Tuesday, August 22, 2006

'Dumb and Dumber' in Louisiana: "Genius is not required to know this was a bad idea."

Our Views:

Toll proposal dumb blunder

Aug 22, 2006

Opinion Page Staff
WBRZ (Baton Rouge, LA)
The Advocate
Copyright 2006

Five months ago, with no notice to the public, the Blanco administration took action toward possibly making Interstates 10 and 12 toll roads.

The state Department of Transportation and Development submitted a preliminary application to federal officials March 7, but the driving public was kept in the dark until U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., spilled the beans Aug. 10.

As dumb as it was to do this, not informing the public was even dumber.

Genius is not required to know this was a bad idea likely to anger the public. The toll idea shouldn’t have survived five minutes, let alone five months. Killing this nonstarter should have been a no-brainer.

The state administration’s request to the feds came to light when Vitter, a Republican, sent a letter of opposition to Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat.

Vitter called for withdrawal of the pending request for federal approval to impose the tolls. Even U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, has opposed slapping tolls on the two federal highways, which are among the busiest roads in Louisiana.

Initially, Blanco had no public response. A spokesman for the governor twice referred a reporter to the office of Johnny Bradberry, Blanco’s secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

Bradberry said his department only submitted a preliminary application. No decision had been made about whether to file a formal application, and Blanco had not directed DOTD to go forward with tolls, he said.

The DOTD chief also said he was puzzled by Vitter’s reaction, since Vitter was briefed about the toll proposal during a meeting June 8 and raised no objections at the time.

Vitter denied having gotten a briefing, saying he learned about the toll application from unofficial sources about 10 days before the matter became public.

Considering that it took five months for a light to go on in the Blanco administration, we suppose it’s possible Vitter took two months to figure out the politics of this. On the other hand, we’d like to think Vitter, a Rhodes scholar, would be a little quicker on his feet.

By Aug. 11, Blanco found her voice.

First she said the tolls aren’t going to happen. Then she said she didn’t know what would occur in the long term. Finally, she bristled about Vitter, accusing him of “petty partisan politics.”

Blanco might have a point about partisanship, but if she does, our two-party system is working as intended. Republicans are supposed to question Democratic governors’ actions (just as Democrats are supposed to challenge Republican presidents).

In serving their own political interests, opposing parties also benefit the public’s interest, holding their opponents’ feet to the fire and keeping them honest.

The toll road idea presumably is dead. We don’t think it is an idea whose time has come, and we would expect considerable public opposition if tolls were pursued. For one thing, traffic is bad enough now on I-10 and I-12. We don’t think it would be helped by adding a bunch of toll collection sites.

However, Louisiana is going to have to figure out what to do about a $12 billion backlog of state road and bridge work. Bradberry had said tolls were one of several options under review. Other possibilities include public/private partnerships, increasing gasoline taxes and raising registration fees.

We would encourage and welcome public discussion of ideas for funding Louisiana’s highway needs. The operative words, we emphasize, are public discussion.

The Blanco administration’s failure to be forthcoming about the possibility of tolls on two major highways was not smart, and hardly likely to inspire the confidence necessary to gain public support for highway funding.

© 2006 in The Advocate : www.2theadvocate.com