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Louisiana Targets Broadband and Roads With Federal Funds

For rural communities like St. Helena, the billions the state will receive from the infrastructure bill for Internet and road repairs could have a massive impact. The community sits about 34 percent below the national income average.

(TNS) — Residents of St. Helena Parish, La., have long driven on roads that seem to cave in as quickly as they're fixed.

Still, when COVID-19 pushed Louisiana and the rest of the country into remote work last spring, staying home didn't necessarily make life any easier: This swath of pine-forested hills on the toe of Louisiana's boot has very little high-speed Internet, a resource that determined how successfully people could work from home during the pandemic, national studies suggest.

Now, local officials are lauding President Joe Biden's $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill as a chance for change.

Broadband Internet and roads — two resources that draw frequent complaints in this rural parish with deeply-rooted infrastructure troubles — are key areas the massive bill targets. It holds $65 billion for Internet upgrades nationwide, and $110 billion for refurbishment of bridges and roads.

As Biden pitched the bill and lawmakers debated it, the crumbling of infrastructure in rural America emerged as a key argument for passing the legislation.

Few communities in the United States stand to benefit more from the sweeping plan, local officials say, than places like St. Helena.

Wedged between Baton Rouge's eastern suburbs and the Louisiana- Mississippi line, the rural and impoverished parish of about 10,000 people has a median household income of $44,000, according to census data — 34 percent below the national average. Decades of disinvestment and a dearth of industry and commerce mean the parish has little tax revenue.

That small tax base leaves local government with little spending leeway to fix rickety roads and start new projects.

"If anyone needs this, we do," said Frank Johnson, the police jury president. "We need help. If it comes true like they say it will, I think it will help St. Helena tremendously."

Understanding the Bill



It could be years before the $1.2 trillion worth of projects outlined in the 2,700-page bill start materializing in places like St. Helena.

Each state will receive an amount of money from the bill dictated by a funding formula. Louisiana is set to get some $7.25 billion. The bulk of that will go towards road and highway work and the remainder is slated for broadband, sewage and other smaller-scale projects.

State government will get the money first, with Louisiana's Department of Transportation & Development and the Legislature having broad authority over how to spend it. Then, those bodies will work with local planning organizations and governments to set priorities at the local level.

Despite its size, experts are split on how transformational the bill will be for the country's infrastructure. Some say it's too little, too late to patch up systems that have been degrading for years.

The bill is "a big deal," but "is not transformational, because most of it is more of the same," said Peter Norton, a history professor in the University of Virginia's engineering department.

Louisiana's House delegation rejected the plan along party lines. Louisiana's Republican members of Congress argued Louisiana might not get its fair share.

"Some argue that even if it can't deliver, a little something is better than nothing," said Rep. Julia Letlow, R- Start, in a USA Today op-ed explaining her vote. "But our people will be paying for this plan."

It's too early to determine exactly how much money from the legislation could end up in coffers of individual localities like St. Helena.

But while experts and D.C. politicos remain split on what impact the money will have nationwide, local officials here describe it as potentially pivotal.

"I would like to get as much money as we can, because we need it," Johnson said. "I'm like this: $1.5 million is better than no million."

Wifi Woes



Along with roads, Johnson and other local leaders want broadband to be a focus of how the parish spends the money.

The parish's recovery from Hurricane Ida, which swept through the parish on Aug. 30, further illuminated an already-pronounced lack of Internet access there, as residents struggled to communicate in the aftermath of the storm.

People in nearby Tangipahoa Parish grew frustrated as companies like Spectrum took months after the storm to restore wifi in rural parts of that parish. But in St. Helena, "we don't have enough broadband for that to be an issue," said La. Rep. Robby Carter, D- Greensburg.

Carter lives about a mile outside of Greensburg, the parish seat and the most populated center in the parish. Most St. Helenans with access to broadband — meaning high-speed, usually cable-driven Internet that can support streaming and messaging — live within that town's limits.

Where Carter lives, about a mile outside of town, he relies on a satellite system to bring wifi into his house, he said.

Local efforts, including a program urged by the school system and the police jury to survey wifi connections in houses parish-wide, have tried to address the problem.

But it's a patchwork effort, local officials say.

"The goal for us is to have fiber in every home. We've been talking about all these other funding sources to do that with," said Roderick Matthews, the parish's emergency director.

"But I think with the infrastructure bill having passed, now it's like, this will probably be a reality," he added.

Rocky Roads


St. Helena's wifi woes became especially pronounced in recent years. Bad roads, on the other hand, are nothing new: They date back centuries, to when the parish's biggest landowners ran roadways as private enterprise after the Civil War.

They date back centuries, to when rich planters who reigned supreme in the Florida Parishes' piney woods ran roadways as private enterprise after the Civil War.

Landowners who presided over stretches of road would hire workers to grate them out in often-rudimentary ways, with "no real scientific basis for how they did it," said Dr. Sam Hyde, Director of the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

"The patchwork road system created all kinds of problems, because once you'd get past one stretch of road, for example, perhaps you couldn't get your ox cart over the next one," Hyde said.

Things got better in the 20th century, particularly after Huey Long's governorship brought sweeping infrastructure improvements to rural Louisiana. But the area's roads remained far from perfect. And when the federal government brought Interstates 12 and 55 through Louisiana, " St. Helena parish was left out again," Hyde said.

Many saw it as a missed opportunity for the kind of investment that sprang up in places like Hammond and Denham Springs — suburban centers parked near the federal highways where subdivisions sprang up, populations soared and commercial strips boomed.

On a more day-to-day level, bad roads can make living in the parish difficult.

"If you come to St. Helena and ask people about their roads, 99 percent of them are going to tell you blacktop roads" are the parish's biggest infrastructure need, Johnson said.

Bobby Morgan, a Pine Grove resident who's lived in that small community since 2004, lobbied the police jury for close to a year to fix a road near his home that kept releasing dust even after it had been re-paved.

Morgan thinks a good use for the federal money would be funding a red light at the four-way stop between two state highways in the town, LA-16 and LA-449. On its website, St. Helena parish boasts of "no red lights in the parish;" but Morgan wonders if putting one there might help prevent accidents that have grown frequent on LA-16, a busy trucking thoroughfare.

Parts of that highway could use some repairs, too, he said.

"It's starting to get a little rough, you know, because of the heavy truck traffic on it," Morgan said.

It's not the only road in the parish that has yielded complaints. A $4.6 million project meant to fix parish roads drew criticism from some local officials while it drew to a close earlier this month, as potholes appeared in some recently-paved areas.

Weeks earlier, Johnson sparred with a gravel mine owner after a stretch of parish road in his district repaved under that program caved in after heavy trucks drove over it.

Some parish roads are gravel. Others are blacktop already, Johnson said, but are so worn-down they need to be torn up and paved again.


(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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