How other states are slaying their transportation budget dragons

by Christiaan Mader

Raising the gas tax can only be part of the solution to Louisiana $12.5 billion infrastructure problem.

The possibility of a gas tax hike has buzzed around the governor’s transportation task force since it convened for the first time this month. As quoted in today’s Advocate, Rep. Ken Havard, chairman of the Louisiana house’s transportation committee, spilled that a recommendation to raise Louisana’s current 20 cent pump tax is almost a certainty.

Raising revenue is an obvious way to go about tackling the state’s infamous $12.5 billion backlog of road projects, comprised mostly of road repairs and expansions. On top of the oft-reported backlog is the state’s list of 20 megaprojects, like the I-49 Connector, which accounts for an additional $10.6 billion in wishful thinking.

Currently, Louisiana taxpayers are biting off that more than $20 billion elephant to the tune of $460 million in annual expenditures, a pace that ranks 41st in the nation.

The crux of the problem, as identified in a white paper published by One Acadiana, is that the buying power of the 16 cent tax rate, set in 1984, has emaciated by half. The 1A white paper estimates that an additional $500 million to $1 billion per year in revenue is required to see the bottom of that transportation backlog.

Much of the clog, however, is in legacy projects, like the Connector, that may not have the obvious utility they had when proposed decades ago.

There’s a tremendous amount of political pull for these kinds of projects. Once inked, it’s hard for constituents to let go of the road improvements their state governments have promised them. Because the money never comes, the projects gather dust while the underlying problems never get solved.

“What often happens in transportation is the solution becomes the project, not the problem,” says Beth Osborne of transportation policy group Transportation For America. In the context of road building, that means we tend to think of the road as the end rather than say, easing congestion. Road projects thus inevitably justify themselves.

Tennessee’s department of transportation has had great success in reducing its transportation costs by applying that key insight to its Expedited Delivery Process, implemented in 2012. Transportation officials tackle the problems that underwrite expensive legacy solutions like road extension and expansions by suggesting cheaper alternatives that accomplish the same goals. Why build a new road to address traffic accidents when a safer intersection will do the trick?

Last year, TDOT claimed $942 million in cost reductions since 2014, $171 million of which are attributed directly to Expedited Delivery. Still, Tennessee reportedly requires more than $25 billion in transportation improvements.

Another approach is to make city and regional agencies prove the utility of their projects. In 2016, Virginia adopted a policy that mimics a grant application process. The Commonwealth Transportation Board collects projects from around Virginia and scores them according to how well they “ease congestion, improve economic development, provide accessibility to jobs, improve safety and environmental quality, and support transportation-efficient land use.”

Virginia's process creates better “geographic equity” according to Osborne by applying data analysis to an infrastructure delivery system that, for decades, was influenced by political deal-making. By adding an element of competition for limited resources, she says, it forces local jurisdictions to rethink their own transportation problems and develop solutions that can win funding.

“When localities are ask to compete, they are amazing,” she says. “It can really make your head spin at the innovation that comes out.”