(Note: As this column went to press, Mayor-President Robideaux announced his veto of the council’s amendment to provide funding for this project. Find more on that development here.)
Using $7 million of city money to build a parish road made some sense when voters approved two bond sales back in 1997 and 2009, which included funding to extend Louisiana Avenue all the way up to Gloria Switch Road.
It was a project built on the belief that new roads drive development, thereby growing the tax base, and on the desire to improve transportation connectivity between Lafayette, Carencro and the northeast corner of unincorporated Lafayette Parish.
But that was then. This is now.
When evaluated against Lafayette Consolidated Government’s more pressing priorities and many financial challenges, this project warrants serious reconsideration. And the politics around this have created the opportunity for us to do so since Robideaux vetoed funding for it Wednesday. Now the council has to decide if it wants to attempt to override his veto or accept the many reasons why this may not be the right project at the right time.
For starters, it’s $7 million of city money going to unincorporated Lafayette. There’s talk of the city annexing some of this land, bringing any future development and tax revenue into the city’s coffers. But you need owner approval to annex land, so it could stay unincorporated or even be absorbed by Carencro instead. The city could end up paying for a road that spurs development on land that doesn’t generate tax revenue for the city of Lafayette.
It’s $7 million in a budget where the city projects to spend $6 million of its savings just to cover basic operating costs. While this money can’t be used to pay for operating costs, it’s hard to ignore the optics of spending millions to build a new road that may not generate any new city tax revenue when we’re having to break into the city’s piggy bank just to pay our bills.
It’s $7 million to build a new road when the city has a $40 million backlog of maintenance for existing roads but only $4 million per year in the budget to work with. The parish is even worse off with a $50 million backlog and only $2.5 million in each year’s budget. So we can’t afford to take care of our existing roads, yet here we are building a new one.
It’s $7 million to subsidize the development of housing and retail when markets are sluggish. That means we’re subsidizing an increase in supply when demand for new housing and retail space is relatively low. Instead of growing the pie, we risk incentivizing new subdivisions and strip malls that just slice the market thinner.
It’s $7 million to spur the kind of sprawl that’s more of a financial liability than an asset. That’s because LCG takes on perpetual maintenance responsibilities for roads and drainage despite the fact that most developments don’t generate enough tax revenue to pay for this maintenance. So long term the new development this road would likely encourage could end up being a net negative for LCG’s bottom line, even though it may generate new tax revenue.
It’s $7 million to extend a road that’s seen limited development to date. Louisiana Avenue has not had anything significant built near it outside of a gas station and a shopping center anchored by a Target. There’s limited proof of success from past investments.
It’s $7 million to encourage development in a flood prone area. Seriously, all of the land around the extension is in a flood zone. The future intersection of Louisiana Avenue and Gloria Switch Road is in an actual floodway caused by its proximity to Bayou Saint Clair — meaning it will flood regularly — as is all the property less than a quarter mile east of this new road. It seems imprudent to spend millions of dollars encouraging growth in an area likely to flood when we can’t keep our existing developments high and dry.
It’s $7 million that could be put to better use elsewhere. This bond money could be used for any of a wide variety of capital projects for the city, including other roads, drainage, public buildings or parks. Mayor-President Robideaux had the same idea as his budget moved this money to as-of-yet-unnamed stormwater diversion projects. While I’m skeptical of his “free up as much money for drainage as I can and then figure out how to spend it” strategy, I’d rather deploy this capital on anything more productive than building another road into a cane field that floods.
It’s not that extending Louisiana Avenue has no value. It would undoubtedly improve commutes and increase land values for some people. And it could spur development.
It’s just that desperate times in Lafayette require desperate measures. We can’t afford to continue pushing forward with business as usual. Something’s got to change if we expect to get better results. And unfortunately that means hard decisions and sacrifices must be made.
Lafayette’s in a financial hole. The question now is do we have the political will to stop digging. Or will we continue subsidizing the kind of development that’s pushing our community in the wrong direction.