President Joe Biden pitched his plan to modernize the country’s infrastructure during two Louisiana stops on Thursday, telling a small crowd in Lake Charles that he wanted to replace the aging Interstate 10 bridge that served as a visual backdrop there and touring an antiquated water plant in New Orleans where vital machinery frequently breaks down.
The president was highlighting a $2.3 trillion proposal before Congress that he calls the American Jobs Plan and that aims to rebuild bridges, highways, ports and other parts of the nation’s transportation network. The plan also proposes providing money for child care and caregiving for older adults and the disabled, items that Biden says are key to America’s future but that Republicans in Congress have said don’t belong in an infrastructure plan.
“Only 5% of it is infrastructure,” said U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican, after talking with Biden and other political leaders for 15 minutes on the tarmac after Air Force One landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. “The rest is the Green New Deal, new welfare programs and reparations. Asking me to vote for this bill when it’s only 5% infrastructure and 95% non-infrastructure is like asking me to buy a car to get the cup holders.”
Biden also met with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Congressman-elect Troy Carter, whose district stretches from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Cassidy is a Republican, while Cantrell and Carter are Democrats.
Carter said he pitched two other infrastructure needs to Biden – tearing down the Claiborne Avenue overpass in New Orleans and building another bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.
The president was familiar with calls to replace the Interstate 10 overpass above North Claiborne Avenue, Carter said. Biden highlighted that possibility when he announced his infrastructure plan five weeks ago.
“We talked about infrastructure and his total commitment to Louisiana. These are issues that Republicans and Democrats can agree on,” said Carter, giddy after having the president visit his district even before he formally takes office on Tuesday.
Kennedy and Cassidy discussed ways to get more disaster relief aid to southwest Louisiana, which was hit by two devastating hurricanes last year and still has several thousand people who have been unable to return home.
In a short video he released after leaving the airport, Cassidy echoed Kennedy in saying Biden’s plan doesn’t spend enough on roads and bridges, but added an optimistic note: “Hopefully we get to common ground,” Cassidy said.
Watch: Joe Biden, John Bel Edwards compare pocket rosaries during Louisiana meeting
Biden made no public comments in New Orleans as he made four stops at the Carrollton water plant operated by the much-maligned Sewerage & Water Board on South Claiborne Avenue.
Ghassan Korban, executive director of the S&WB since 2018, and Ramsey Green, Cantrell’s infrastructure chief, showed off a water purification pond, along with Cantrell. Biden then saw the inside of a water tower.
At each stop, the city officials laid out the problems that have led old turbines to break down, forcing city residents, all too frequently, to live under boil-water advisories.
At one point, Biden walked by reporters and joked, “I’m taking up a collection after this.”
“What for?” asked one reporter.
“Water,” replied the president, and moved onto the “new” pumping station, built in 1958.
At his final stop at the water plant, in the boiler room, used to power water pumps, Biden and Kaitlin Tymrak, a board employee, spoke over the clanging of machinery and hissing pipes.
Biden shook his head when Tymrak said some of the machinery is more than 100 years old.
In all, the president spent about 2 ½ hours in New Orleans.
Accompanying him was Cedric Richmond, who represented New Orleans in the U.S. House for a decade before resigning in January to become a senior adviser to the president.
Earlier in the day, Biden, dressed in a navy blue suit and his trademark aviator sunglasses, spoke along the Lake Charles waterfront adjacent to its downtown, the hulking I-10 bridge over the Calcasieu River and its arched truss in the distance behind him.
Also within sight was the city’s 22-story Capital One tower and its dozens of blown-out and boarded-up windows, perhaps Lake Charles’s most prominent example of the damage left in the wake of the two hurricanes that devastated the region in August and October last year.
Signs around his podium included a picture of the bridge with the slogan: “Getting America Back on Track.” A smattering of local officials, along with Gov. John Bel Edwards, were in attendance, as was a group of workers in hard hats whom Biden spoke with after finishing his speech, exchanging fist bumps with a few.
“It’s hard to believe that you got hit as badly as you have within the timeframe you have,” Biden said of Hurricanes Laura and Delta, which ripped through southwestern Louisiana last year.
He added later: “I believe you need the help. We’re going to try to make sure you get it. But the people of Louisiana always have picked themselves up, just like America always picks itself up … I promise you we’re going to build back better than ever, more resilient.”
But Biden‘s message in Lake Charles was much more focused on infrastructure than hurricane recovery. Biden pitched a new I-10 bridge as part of his infrastructure plan, questioning why it’s taken so long to build one given the bridge’s age and condition.
“It shouldn’t be this hard or take so long to fix a bridge that’s this important. It makes no sense,” Biden said. “But the truth is across the country, we have failed. We have failed to properly invest in infrastructure for half a century.”
Earlier, Edwards and Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter also made pitches for hurricane relief along with a new bridge. Local officials have been concerned that the region’s dire recovery needs would be overshadowed by the focus on the infrastructure bill.
“Lake Charles is a great American city and we continue to need a great American response,” Hunter said.
Local officials in Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish see federal hurricane relief as long overdue and desperately needed to help move more residents back into their homes and reopen businesses that haven’t been able to do so more than eight months after Hurricane Laura, which was followed six weeks later by Delta.
Category 4 Laura was one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S., with winds of up to 150 mph, causing an estimated $19 billion in damage in the state. Delta, a Category 2 storm, left behind further misery and followed an eerily similar path.
Lake Charles officials estimate that some 3,000 residents remain displaced, while that number rises to around 4,000 for all of Calcasieu. FEMA has been providing mobile homes and travel trailers as temporary residences.
Calcasieu Parish Police Jury President Brian Abshire said he believes both hurricane recovery and infrastructure are important and made the case in a brief meeting with Biden before his address, he said.
Few if any will argue that it shouldn’t be replaced. It was completed in 1952, before the I-10 existed, and was later integrated into the interstate system. Among other deficiencies, it’s very steep and lacks shoulders.