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Help in Katrina's aftermath

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted September 12, 2005

Some random thoughts about Hurricane Katrina. So much has been written on this subject that I hesitate to contribute anything further on the subject. Here are my views. First, two congressional bills totaling over $62 billion would be a "down payment" for the recovery effort. The old adage that "haste makes waste" is surely true. The President and Congress wanted to be recognized as doing some good, given that television, especially cable news, is covering the aftermath of Katrina daily.

My experience of nearly four decades in Washington as a staffer to two Senators in the Leadership, as a player in drafting legislation, as a television commentator and now as print media commentator, is that hastily enacted legislation could be harmful. When legislators enact emergency legislation they often have no time to evaluate the consequences of the legislation. Their action results in programs which often are ineffective or are otherwise deficient.

The Patriot Act, enacted nine days after 9/11 because Congress wanted to "be responsive," contains provisions which might change the way this nation is governed. Decent Attorneys General have ensured that the Patriot Act has been appropriately enforced.

Contemplate a different administration with an Attorney General who would interpret the law differently and who would challenge our beloved Constitution. The Administration could claim that most congressional critics never read the Patriot Act. Quite so. Lucky for the Administration that some Members of Congress haven't read the bill. The Administration reaction would be more severe than the House reaction was in the last Congress when the House failed to reauthorize the Act.

Few members of this Congress know what provisions are in the emergency supplemental appropriations legislation to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Like the Patriot Act we will come to rue the day the bill was enacted. (The Patriot Act was enacted in one day. Eleven House Members voted against the bill. The Senate voted unanimously.)

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (IL) took an unprecedented media beating for suggesting we should assess whether New Orleans should be rebuilt in light of the fact most of the City is below sea level. This is what more than 80 years of entitlement mentality gets us. I hope Speaker Hastert, a gentle, compassionate and decent man, has not been beaten into submission. His request is a perfectly reasonable one.

We have been told that taxpayers would pay approximately $300 billion to rebuild the section of the Gulf Coast destroyed by Katrina. That figure excludes the money private insurers would pay and, of course, huge sums which ordinary folks voluntarily have contributed in the last ten days. And that amount excludes what Presidents Clinton and Bush '43 could raise in donations.

Perhaps we could justify spending that much taxpayer money. Fine. But shouldn't we think about alternatives? The Federal Transit Administration ("FTA"), with which I am familiar, requires an alternatives analysis before it will finance a transit project. If a city wanted to install a light rail line it first would be required to study busways, heavy rail, maybe monorails. If the analyses determined that light rail would carry the most people at the least cost per passenger then the FTA would approve the light rail project.

Today so-called Bus Rapid Transit often is approved although this high-speed bus system doesn't work. Many people will not ride such sophisticated buses. Labor costs are unreasonably high because each bus carrying sixty people needs a driver whereas a
four-car light rail train carrying 150 passengers per car needs a single motorman. Cities often are forced to invest in busways because they later can be converted to rail systems. While I often disagree with the outcome, the requirement to consider alternative ground transportation is sound policy.

Current mentality suggests that homeowners in New Orleans should build new homes on the lots of their demolished or uninhabitable houses. Hastert was right. We must reevaluate this reasoning before we invest federal funds in this restoration project.

An Internet blog suggests that New Orleans should not have invested in streetcars. The blog explains that we all would be better off if New Orleans instead used the funds to give poor residents without cars money to flee the city.

The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar Line has been operating with cars built in the early to mid-1920s. The only money the St. Charles Line received was for rehabilitating cars and for replacing extremely thin rail with standard rail used on streetcar lines throughout the United States. That Line carries thousands of regular commuters to work, as well as thousands of tourists. The St. Charles Avenue Line is the oldest continuously operated rail line in the United States; it began operating with tiny steam locomotives in the 1830s. Yes, that was not a typo. The 1830s. In the very later 1800s the St. Charles Line was powered by electricity.

The Riverside Line began operating in the late 1980s as an experiment by the Department of Transportation. It originally carried more people than expected and was soon converted to the same gauge as the St. Charles Avenue Line. The Riverside Line used similar equipment to the St. Charles Avenue Line and could be maintained at the Regional Transit Authority's ("RTA") famous Carrolton Shops, which has built and has maintained streetcars longer than most New Orleans residents can remember.

The Canal Street Line was abandoned in 1964. Transit ridership immediately declined and the corridor itself deteriorated. Modest funds were invested by federal, state and local authorities to bring back the streetcars. It happened last year. Soon ridership increased on the Canal Street Line, which begins at the end of the Riverside Line and runs up Canal Street to the cemeteries. (The Streetcar branches off to City Park, which is served by every third car on the line.) The line carries double the passengers that the bus line carried and some days triple the passengers on the buses. Immediately the Canal Street Corridor had been revived by huge investments which justified the investment in the streetcar line.

The proposed Desire Line has not been built and may never be built in New Orleans. The FTA reported in its alternatives analysis that the FTA could not justify investing in the Desire Line. Yet Congress authorized funds for the Desire Line when it recently enacted the transportation authorization bill ("TEA-LU"). If the line were built, which is highly doubtful, it would be because the will of the appropriators had overridden the will of FTA.

Imagine driving in downtown New Orleans where there are thousands of additional cars and ensuing traffic jams. One line of continuous streetcar service, such as the Canal and St. Charles were, could carry 25 times the number of passengers than a lane of many cars driven without passengers.

New Orleans, with its welfare state and entitlement mentality, has been a prototype for Liberals.
Conservatives have a different view. Before we pour billions in the Gulf Coast why don't we propose a conservative plan that could be implemented?

Before Congress begins investigations, it should devise a plan for implementing a radically different approach so it could avoid past failures. Let us not give people more credit card-style handouts. Let us not rush to judgment. Perhaps the Historic area of New Orleans and its downtown business corridors should be rebuilt. Perhaps the tinderbox homes which were destroyed or rendered inhabitable by Hurricane Katrina should not. In any case this natural disaster cries out for an alternatives analysis.

Why did New York City handle 9/11 so extremely well, with no warning, while New Orleans was such a disaster with a warning of several days? Don't think about New York City. Think about the State of Louisiana's next door neighbor, the State of Mississippi. In Mississippi, which was hit harder than the City of New Orleans, the rescue, clean up and rebuilding effort is much better than next door in Louisiana. What is the difference? Leadership.

I am not a fan of former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's politics, but, without question, he is a leader. Mayor Giuliani took charge. He had excellent police and fire officials as well as other emergency professionals who understood his commands.

In Mississippi, Governor Haley Barbour is working with the bi-partisan Congressional delegation. Senator Trent Lott lost the home his family has owned for 150 years. Yet he didn't complain and blame others for his family's loss. He immediately tried to help his Mississippi constituents. Compare the recovery effort in Mississippi to that in Louisiana, where Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco is at war with Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans. New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass is at war with a variety of people. The Congressional delegation, rather than figuring out how to help, has been a disgrace. Senator Mary Landrieu (D) complained loudly and appeared to be even angrier than Governor Blanco. I am sorry to say that freshman Senator David Vitter (R) wasn't much better. Only freshman Congressman Bobby Jindal (R), who narrowly lost the gubernatorial race to Blanco, has been brilliant and has been tireless in helping his constituents in New Orleans.

Finally, the Heritage Foundation released two papers on Hurricane Katrina. The papers are worthy of consideration. The better of the two recommends actions we should take as we begin to help the victims of Katrina and rebuild their neighborhoods. Every politician involved in the Hurricane Relief must read this paper. It is principled. It is creative. It is visionary.

The other paper, by Ron Utt, a libertarian economist, suggests that the pork in the transportation bill should be repealed and should be reapplied to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. Fine. But my hero, the conservative leader from Oklahoma, Senator Jim Inhofe (R), who chaired the Senate negotiations during the House/Senate Conference on the transportation reauthorization bill (TEA-LU), has issued a detailed analysis. He said that TEA-LU contains only $8 billion that could be defined as pork. By all means apply that $8 billion to rebuilding the Gulf Coast. But have you ever tried to repeal something in this town? Good luck. I've said my piece. I hope it was helpful.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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