May 29, 2017 04:16 AM

Does the state need more money or better prioritization to fix its transportation problems? The answer is yes.

US Representative Garret Graves

A couple weeks back, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves laid across the John James Audubon Bridge in West Feliciana and Facebooked about it, taking a pot shot at Louisiana’s transportation priorities. Graves' essential point was that the state’s highway program does a poor job of sending money where it’s truly needed, trotting out the term “boondoggle” to describe the elegant but vacant span of the cable-stayed bridge. So little traffic, he said, he could play tennis on it.

He snapped a perplexed selfie, squinting into the social media-verse through a pair of aviators, and posted a lamentation of the triumph of politics over data in the state’s quest to slash through it’s $25 billion backlog of road projects.

"Many say that we need more money in transportation projects. While I agree with that, we need to also keep in mind the importance of how we spend the money we have," he said in a comment to a constituent on the pic's thread.

Graves has a point, one pounced upon in a rare moment of sober analysis by the folks at The Hayride, that in a tight funding climate, the state should take a hard look at its funding priorities, particularly when it’s asking for money. For the record, as DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson would have it, DOTD does have a prioritization program that each year is approved by the Legislature. But over the years the program's built too little in the way good infrastructure, and even less in the way of trust.

Early this week, legislators will debate Wilson’s request for more funding. Likely, it will fail along party lines. Reps will grandstand about DOTD’s greed and incompetence. And, in short order, they will submit homegrown projects to DOTD for funding, and horse-trade for votes.

In an interview with The IND last week, Wilson defended the state’s highway priority program (which has some 3,000 line items on it), in particular rebutting Graves’ jab at the Audubon Bridge. “You mean the boondoggle the Legislature approved?” Wilson chuckled.

To be sure, you don’t get into a $23 billion backlog — around $13 billion in routine projects and another $10 billion in priority megaprojects like the I-49 Connector — without some good-old fashioned government waste, care of both bureaucrats and pork-peddling elected officials.

Generally speaking, as Wilson points out, projects tend not to be boondoggles in the districts they’re built. The Audubon Bridge, as The Hayride piece notes, now shuttles traffic from West Feliciana to Point Coupee to take advantage of a new Walmart. Even if the traffic counts are marginal when compared to the relief that a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge would conceivably deliver, folks making an easy go of a grocery trip likely aren’t complaining to their representative.

Audubon Bridge/Wikimedia

DOTD currently “prioritizes” projects on a five-way ranked tier: preservation, operation, safety improvement, expansion and quality of life improvement. Projects come into the program via DOTD’s district offices, regional MPOs (multi-parish planning agencies) and *gasp* elected officials. From there, DOTD engineers evaluate the projects with math, presumably, and determine which projects end up in the highway priority program to one day get funding. It’s worth noting that a project can sit in the priority program for several years, kicked over into future, approved fiscal plans when the funding runs dry.

It’s hard to imagine that every project on the state’s books is equally important. Even the obscure and relatively toothless prioritization method that DOTD employs should weed out more worthless projects than it does. Wilson insists his engineers have vetted each project, and have found not one wanting in utility or necessity. Yet, the state’s own documentation shows that, despite ranking 25th in population and 31st in geographic size, Louisiana has the 10th largest highway system, and evidently one of the worst maintained in the country, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That's a bit of back-of-the-napkin, to be sure, but it does raise questions about the rationale of the state's last decade or so of building.

(Cognitive Dissonance: DOTD says that 98.5 percent of Louisiana interstate lane miles are in “fair or better” condition.)

A Georgia state rep, a Republican, recently stumped for the Louisiana gas tax hike in an Advocate op-ed, noting that both Louisiana and Georgia have more than 16,000 miles of roadway managed by their respective departments. Metropolitan Atlanta has more people in it than Louisiana. In 2016, Georgia’s $2.5 billion transportation budget was more than four times Louisiana’s. Georgia also recently passed a gas tax hike to raise $900 million in money for roads. GDOT's estimated budget in 2017 is $3.5 billion.

Wilson has argued for accountability measures that would modernize the department’s funding strategies and obligations. Kicking the state police out of the transportation trust fund, legislating that no new monies would go to salaries and seeking to index the gas tax against inflation are fiscally sensible measures.

But critics are not wrong about the state’s project delivery priorities. Other states have adopted competitive grant models for funding (Virginia’s Smart Scale comes to mind), requiring that localities prove the value of their projects according to a rigorous data application process.

Strategies like Smart Scale will become all the more important if federal funding tightens or decentralizes, as the Trump budget would have it. That’s particularly the case for state transit projects. (Trump’s budget mercilessly cuts the FTA and deletes the TIGER program.)

There’s plenty of blame to spread around for the state’s transportation woes. Most everyone seems content to float the existing system so long as its politically expedient. The narrative from state conservative commentators has been: DOTD is not poorly funded, it’s poorly managed. Problem is, both scenarios are likely true.