A $12.5 billion task

by Christiaan Mader

Where do you start to clean up a transportation mess over 11,000 miles long?

Traffic crawling along I-10 near Lake Charles
IND File Photo

Gov. John Bel Edwards charged a new task force with fixing the impossible: the state’s $12.5 billion in transportation needs. The task force, which includes state representatives, captains of industry and policy experts, will deliver a plan by year’s end that will most likely involve some manner of a revenue increase. Yes, that likely means taxes.

Louisiana ranks 21st in the nation in generating transportation revenue, which primarily comes through excise taxes on gasoline, currently assessed at 16 cents per gallon. The last time the state convened a meeting of the minds to solve the transportation issue was in 1989, when the state produced the TIMED program of road funding, which is still in the dregs of state sales taxes at 4 cents per gallon. Two projects remain to be complete in the program which, surprise surprise, came in late and over budget.

Louisiana motorists, this is your life. It’s 2016, and your state has fallen into a hole, as most states have, of miles upon miles of identified road improvement needs. At last report, counting roads and bridges, Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development estimates a total of 11,000 miles in backlogged road needs, including widenings and road repairs. An additional 522 miles of bridges are listed as structurally deficient.

DOTD District 03, which includes Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary and Vermilion parishes, requires $1.3 billion in estimated transportation improvements, not including bridges. That number doesn’t include so-called megaprojects like the I-49 Connector, which DOTD estimated would cost $750 million in its 2015 Statewide Transportation Plan.

Some of the solution may be eliminating projects from the drawing board, as Edwards has done in his most recent budget, slashing a large transportation project on Apollo Road in Scott.

The $12.5 billion in identified highway and bridge needs reflects a pie-in-the-sky assessment of what would be required to get all of the state’s roads up to a high level of service. About 47 percent, or $5.8 billion, is thought to be needed just for road widening and lane adding on the state’s highways. Many transportation experts argue that such a remedy is more cause of than cure for the disease of traffic congestion.

Even if the state puts its highway on a widening diet, it likely faces a massive shortfall of revenue. A white paper by One Acadiana suggests that the state ought to raise $500 million to $1 billion in additional annual transportation revenue. One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi says that whatever solutions the state develops should include more discretion and monetary autonomy for local and sub-regional jurisdictions.

“I think it’s time that as we consider funding solutions for infrastructure investments, that the state provide funding mechanisms to allow local areas to be in control of their own destiny,” El Koubi tells The IND.

There are lots of options on the table, but one could easily be local sales tax increases to pay for infrastructure improvements that primarily impact local municipalities. Lafayette tested that mechanism via the penny sales tax that contributed more than $30 million of the $90 million in improvements on tap at the Lafayette Regional Airport.

Representatives from One Acadiana attended the inaugural task force meeting, delivering a list of priorities that the Connector tops. For now, at least, the Connector is a state priority too, but its fundability is still in question pending a new design.

Of course, the Connector is but one massive straw in a growing haystack of needs. Megaproject accounts for an additional $10 billion in identified infrastructure needs. If you’re counting, that’s over $20 billion in identified transportation needs. It doesn't appear to be getting any smaller.