On his first trip home from the fight at the federal front, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins brought with him some red meat for an Acadiana business community starved for good news — a commitment to the completion of I-49 South. In remarks given at a members-only chat with the congressman hosted by One Acadiana, the interstate’s most resourceful booster, Higgins weighed in with heavy support on the decades-old project.
"The Louisiana delegation is of one voice regarding the completion of the I-49 corridor, I-49 South,” Higgins said. "It's got to get done. It's a matter of economic stability, for obvious reasons, for economic growth. It's a matter of national security."
Indeed these are strange times for congressional Republicans, who famously closed ranks in opposition to President Obama’s American Recovery and Investment Act, promulgated as a stimulant for America’s stalled economy, flagging in the wake of the 2008 mortgage crisis. But there’s a new decider in Washington, the developer-in-chief, who’s reversed Republican recalcitrance on infrastructure spending and made building bridges, roads and dams a linchpin of his Make America Great Again campaign.
To be sure, there are dramatic differences between Obama's stimulus plan, a redux of New Deal economics, and President Trump's as yet materialized plan, said to lean heavily on private industry and tax cuts to fuel public construction projects.
Infrastructure projects do often win bi-partisan support, but those victories have typically been achieved, and boasted about, on home turf, not in Washington. What impact Congressman Higgins' support for the project can deliver is yet to be seen. Placed in the context of the president’s forthcoming plan, the devil is still very much at home in the details.
Generally speaking, federal funding does not allocate to local projects — the TIGER grant LCG received for planning around the Lafayette Connector is one federal-to-local channel — but rather through intermediary agencies at the state and regional level. Whatever bacon the congressman can bring home to the 3rd Congressional District will have to be apportioned by Lafayette's regional planning agency or DOTD, which has more than $26 billion worth of mouths to feed. Gone are the days of earmarking, a voracious bi-partisan indulgence in its time.
Higgins also has a lot on his plate given the state’s dire transportation needs. The failure of the Oroville dam spillways in California drew Higgins’ attention to the Lake Charles I-10 bridge, also know as the World War II Memorial Bridge. In a video published via KPLC last week, Higgins voices concern for what he says is “the most heavily trafficked, dangerously deteriorated bridge in the country.” Higgins claims to have been a loud proponent of a new Lake Charles bridge for a “long time.”
A report out of Lake Charles notes that the congressman has named the bridge one of his top priorities. It's not really clear where on his to-do list I-49 South, much less the Lafayette Connector project, would rank.
Still, to a room stocked with supporters wearing I-49 pins, the congressman’s words regarding I-49 were no doubt welcome. He positioned the project as matter of public safety, praising its strategic value as a military thoroughfare and its use as an evacuation route.
Parsed among his hushed invective against the “alphabet government” — the ABCs of American regulatory bureaucracy, which includes the Federal Highway Administration and the US Department of Transportation — Higgins' sentiments regarding federal highway building and the restoration of a government by the people are arguably heterodox with the “constitutionalist” view Higgins styles.
Highways are notoriously expensive and have been shown, over the course of the 20th century, to crush urban American neighborhoods through eminent domain, a blunt instrument of government overreach, by some traditional conservative reckoning. Congressman Higgins has a nuanced view on the subject, acknowledging the tool’s power and philosophical friction with property rights.
"Eminent domain is a righteous power. However, as in every righteous power, it can be unrighteously wielded. And carelessly applied,“ Higgins told The IND in an interview shortly after his public remarks. "There are occasions in our nation’s history when eminent domain has been used quite improperly. It’s a needed power. Our responsibility is to exercise that power with restraint and humility. You have to look at the greater good and the need. Completing the I-49 corridor is crucial; it’s a matter of national security, public safety, economic growth and economic stability. At the same time we must balance the rights of the individual American citizens who would displaced by that and forced to sell their property, etc."
Support for the president’s campaign promise of a new American infrastructure, the envy of the world, harmonizes with a new conservative idiom — government should help Americans build things again. In principle that’s a welcome commitment. Whether that’s feasible with reduced federal revenue is another question.