RAILROADED in Vermilion Parish

   

The Concerned Citizens of Vermilion Parish continues to hold meetings discussing concerns within the parish. Another meeting was held at the beginning of last month. The previous meeting occurred outside, on a vacant lot, after the group had been denied the opportunity to use other facilities. This time, they were able to meet inside a church.  This grass-roots organization gathered on the Rails to Trails venture and the ever-present crime issue. Mike Hardy, Chief of Police for the City of Abbeville, was the only elected official in attendance. Chief Hardee spoke about the difficulties of filling vacancies within his office with qualified, experienced personnel.

One attendee spoke passionately about how the previous Governor, John Bel Edwards, ran the oil and gas industry out of the state. ‘We need to wake up and slap these [woke Greene energy] people…’ he exclaimed. Others spoke about how the criminal element is already utilizing the rail for trafficking. Converting it to a recreational trail would only normalize the activity within a short distance from people’s homes. This very informative meeting raised many other concerns, ranging from flooding to financing. Undoubtedly, the grassroots effort in this situation comes from the Concerned Citizens of Vermilion Parish.

The day following the meeting, 1,200 cyclists took to their bikes to ride nude through the streets of London in opposition to dependence on motor vehicles and oil. A similar event, the World Naked Bike Ride, was held last month in New Orleans. This one claimed to be calling attention to the “vulnerability of bicyclists.” They are all related and part of a broader global agenda disguised under many different taglines. If this project progresses, can you imagine being exposed to the freak show while trying to BBQ in the comfort of your backyard?


Rails to Trails

The idea of rails to trails is not new. The framework was established decades ago. But we all know the famous quote: “The road to hell was paved with good intentions.” Whether the path the legislature took in years past was well-intentioned is unknown. Regardless, all law and political power can be abused.

What the legislature did do back in 1990 was codify into the Louisiana Revised Statutes dealing with “Wildlife and Fisheries” and specifically “Parks” a “Rail to Trails Program.” The chapter outlines a procedure by which “abandoned” rail lines may be taken over by the state and converted to recreational trails. One of the steps requires the Office of the Lieutenant Governor to commit in writing that he has the “means and ability to implement and administer the Rails to Trails Program.”

The chapter goes on to spell out, “the state and its political subdivisions or political corporations may engage in cooperative endeavors with each other, with the United States or its agencies, or with any public or private association, corporation, or individual” per Article VII, Section 14(C) of the Louisiana Constitution.  They may also “exercise and perform any authorized power and function, including financing, jointly or in cooperation with one or more political subdivisions, either within or without the state, or with the United States or its agencies” as outlined in Article VI, Section 20 of the Louisiana Constitution.

Most interesting

The law also addresses ownership. It reads: “Upon approval by the Interstate Commerce Commission of the preservation of abandoned railroad rights of way as a transportation corridor, the entity approved to administer and implement the “Rails to Trails” program shall, for any and all legal purposes, be considered the legal title holder of the property or rights sought to be preserved…”


It is questionable whether any of this can be legally carried out under Louisiana law. The federal agency outlined in Louisiana law as having the authority necessary to receive abatement plans from railroads and to approve the preservation of abandoned railroad rights of way was dissolved by the ICC Termination Act of 1995. Louisiana law has not been updated to reflect that change and provides no further avenue other than through the approval of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

L&D Railroad – Rails to Trails poses a “Significant Hazard.”

Genesee & Wyoming, Inc. owns the Louisiana and Delta Railroad. The line, originally built between 1880 and 1890, came under the control of Southern Pacific Railroad until March 1987. The track went all the way to Eunice and Kaplan until 1989. As far as we can tell, no significant rail activity has existed since April 2020. Despite being inactive for several years, it has NOT been abandoned.

In an e-mail exchange with Erath Mayor Taylor Mencacci in March 2023, Genesee & Wyoming, Inc. clarified that the rail remains “active” and the company doesn’t participate in rails to trails because it “poses a significant safety hazard.” While G&W didn’t elaborate on the significant safety hazards, many residents have already voiced concern about a trail along the existing rail route.

In the news…

An article by Chris Rosa recently appeared in The Abbeville Meridional. It states: “The bike trail from Gueydan to Abbeville would be perfect because it is rural and has fewer intersections to worry about. However, I wouldn’t say I like the bike trail going through Abbeville because of the intersections. There are 21 intersections from the Vermilion River to John Hardy Drive, an accident between a car and a cyclist waiting to happen.” At the recent meeting, a Concerned Citizens of Vermilion Parish member indicated that the number of intersections doubles by the time you reach the Delcambre canal.

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L&D pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes each year. Why would a rail company continue to pay that amount of money on a rail allegedly abandoned and not generating any revenue? First, because it isn’t abandoned. Second, the rail infrastructure is worth tens of millions of dollars. It wouldn’t make much sense just to abandon it. The rail company seems to have more faith than the elected officials that some industries requiring rail transportation will return to the area. They also see more value in the rail than the organizations supporting the Rails to Trails project. These include the Vermilion Economic Development Authority, whose sole mission is supposedly “to drive economic development” in the area. Now, that is saying something!

Astroturf!

From a distance, Astroturf has the appearance of organic grass. However, closer inspection reveals a manufacturing process. The proponents of the Rails to Trails project have been referred to as a “grassroots” movement. Our records requests have shown that this is not the case. This tactic is not new, however. Even at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the Nationalists erroneously called themselves the Federalists, while the true Federalists were labeled as being Anti-Federalists. It is called spin; it’s called propaganda. Politicians and bureaucrats are the ones pushing the Rails to Trails project. Sure, some Johnny-come-lately residents have jumped on the bandwagon and even served as the movement’s public face. But make no mistake, the actual grassroots movement opposes the endeavor.

The first media report we can locate regarding the Rails to Trails appears in April of 2024. In that report, KATC states: “A coalition of business owners, avid bike riders, and parish organizations proposed the idea a couple of months ago.” In a May 31, 2024 post, Rosyln White, Mayor of Abbeville, indicated: “The conversation about rails to trails is not new. It has been around for as long as I can remember.” Records support Mayor White’s “nothing new” statement. The best we can tell now is that the project originated in the Towns of Erath and Delcambre as early as 2022.

In a November 9, 2022, e-mail chain, Janet Faulk-Gonzales created a contact group related to a “recreational trails” project. That group included Twin Parish Port Commission employees in Delcambre, the Vermilion Economic Development Alliance, and Erath Mayor Taylor Mencacci. There were zero non-governmental individuals included. Mayor Mencacci then forwarded the e-mail to Mike Tarantino with the Iberia Industrial Development Foundation. In that message, Mencacci says: “I wanted to loop you in on a project that I’ve started with Wendell and his team at Twin Parish Ports.” According to Mayor Mencacci in prior communication, “the goal of the trail would be to stretch from Abbeville to New Iberia.”

Who are these organizations?

The Twin Parish Port Commission is a statutorily created political subdivision in Louisiana. It comprises an eleven-member board with broad powers, including taxing and expropriating property. Its primary mission is to regulate commerce, including the power to “…make and enter into contracts, leases and other agreements with railroads…” Its Port Director is Wendell Verret. The most recent meeting minutes provided to the Louisiana Division of Administration are from April 12, 2022. The Port Commission operates primarily on tax revenue, about $500K a year, but does collect about $100K a year in fees and other self-generated revenue.

According to their website, the Vermilion Economic Development Alliance is also a statutorily created political subdivision. However, there does appear to be some distinction between it and the Vermilion Economic Development District, although the two are tightly entangled. This body consists of a fifteen-member board. They work on a shoestring budget, collecting $91K in revenue and spending $97K last year. Its President is Patrick Duhon.

The district’s primary object and purpose is “promoting and encouraging industrial development to stimulate the economy.” We don’t have time to evaluate whether or not they are doing a good job here. However, if an inactive rail line is not any indication, then perhaps a more accurate assessment can be made of their desire to tear up tens of millions of dollars of industrial infrastructure and replace it with “trails.” You’d think the Tourism Commission would be pushing a tourist destination pipe dream, not an industrial development board.

The last government body involved in the creation of the project is the Town of Erath. This small municipality in Vermilion Parish has just over 2,000 people. Its Mayor, as mentioned above, is Taylor Mencacci. According to its most recent financial report, the Town of Erath collected about $1 million in revenue annually, $391K through taxation. It has expenditures of around $1.8 million. These three government/quasi-government political subdivisions dreamed up a Rails to Trails project from the Vermilion River in Abbeville to New Iberia.

Government By The People?

The same month Mayor Mencacci announced the project he started, he misrepresented to U.S. Senator John Kennedy’s Office that the rail had been abandoned. He also misrepresented the desire to convert it to a walking path. Around the same time, the Twin Parish Port Commission staff contacted Michael Domingue in the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism. Domingue made a referral to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Why? Because they have “a ton of money for bicycle trails.” Remember that next time you hit a pothole on a state highway!

Over the next year, many public officials will be engaged and encouraged to support the project. They include:

This occurred while the local elected officials and bureaucrats failed to hold meaningful conversations with their constituents about the project, its potential impact, or the cost. Now fast-forward a year.

In a January 18, 2024, email, Mayor Roslyn White of Abbeville discusses a meeting with Mayor Mencacci and Scott Schilling of LA Trails. Further in the thread, she mentions that New Iberia Mayor Freddie DeCourt would likely support the effort. In that same e-mail thread, a meeting was set up with Lieutenant Governor Billy Nungesser. There is also a January 24, 2024, e-mail about meeting with Mayor White to get input about establishing a 501(c)(3) organization and board. Do you still believe this is a grassroots movement or a carefully orchestrated effort to shield certain persons from exposure and conflicts of interest?

More from the other political subdivisions

According to the February 14, 2024, meeting minutes of the Vermilion Economic Development Alliance, “Ms. [Kayla] Link spoke about the Rails to Trails Program and the meeting with Ms. Stacy Mire. She noted that the program’s first step is to find an organization that can take ownership of the abandoned rails when they are released by the railway. She informed the board that Ms. Mire plans to speak to the board at the March meeting.” VEDA’s hands-on involvement goes even further. On February 27, 2024, the staff of VEDA circulated a flyer that they developed for a private group to promote the project.

Then, on March 12, 2024, meeting minutes of the Vermilion & Iberia Parish Railroad Development District Board meeting reveal: “The trail group, along with the Mayor of Abbeville, was asking about setting up a meeting with the R/R company. Getting letters from local, parish, state, and federal leaders.” We remember a recent backdoor project in Lafayette that involved an allocation of $3 million from the state. Before the money had even arrived, local politicians were signing off on letters of support, and people were showing up asking for the money. You can read more about that scandal here, but who is the Vermilion & Iberia Parish Railroad Development District?

The Vermilion & Iberia Parish Railroad Development District is yet another statutorily created political subdivision of the state. The district’s primary object and purpose is “promoting and encouraging industrial development to stimulate the economy.” If that mission sounds familiar, it should. It is the exact same mission that’s vested in the Vermilion Economic Development District! This body comprises a five-member board, with its Chairman, Homer Stelly. The Vermilion & Iberia Parish Railroad Development District has not reported operating revenue in over a decade. Not only has it failed to promote and encourage industrial development, but it has also done a miserable job responding to public records requests.

Plausible Deniability?

Despite what is clearly a consorted effort by elected officials and bureaucrats from several different agencies, on May 1, 2024, Bart Broussard, Attorney for both the Town of Erath and the City of Abbeville, wrote:

There is no “plan in place” by either municipality to turn the existing railroad track which runs through both cities into a walking/biking trail.  There is no “process in place” to develop a plan by either municipality. The rails to trails effort is headed by a group of private residents and the progress of any plan would need to be addressed to those individuals.”

This is not believable. Records clearly show that the project originated with Mayor Taylor Mencacci and Twin Parish Ports Director Wendell Verrett. There have been numerous discussions, conversations, and attempts to get letters of support from various public officials and organizations. But the people are expected to believe a group of private residents is heading this effort with no plan or process! While private residents may be involved at this stage, the effort was started by elected officials and bureaucrats.

Are the citizens of Vermilion Parish being railroaded? It sure seems that way. The opinions of private citizens make no difference. There is no concern for public safety and how this project will adversely affect their quality of life. Meanwhile, elected officials continue to repeat the line; there is no plan or project, only discussions. They have gone to significant lengths to get support for their project without even checking in with the people it will mainly impact. Indeed, there are more important things to focus on in these communities than a trail. Perhaps the only remaining question left unanswered is: who stands to gain the most?

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