DOTD chief says politics is the roadblock to transportation progress

by Christiaan Mader

Faced with failing infrastructure grades, DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson lays the blame on partisanship and gamesmanship.

Shawn Wilson, center, advocates for the Lafayette Connector, one of 40 megaprojects on the state's list, at recent public event.
Photo by Paul Kieu/image courtesy 1A

While in Lafayette on Thursday trying to build support for a hike in the state’s gas tax, Louisiana’s transportation secretary cited politics as a principle obstacle to improving the state’s well-documented transportation failings.

Appearing on a panel during a local chapter conference of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Wilson noted that it’s not just partisan rancor toward a Democratic governor that jeopardizes his agency’s crusade to raise funds and address the states $23 billion backlog, but Louisiana politics as usual.

“There’s a partisan spirit that has overwhelmed productive policy,” he said. “And that is not a criticism of the individual: I think it’s the way of the country.”

The state’s poor transportation infrastructure was on lighted display during the panel, exposed in a presentation by former state transportation secretary Kam Movassaghi. Movassaghi led an ASCE team reviewing the state's infrastructure progress. The result is a 2017 transportation report card with dismal marks.

Movassaghi’s presentation made the material case for Wilson’s crusade for more revenue: With a D+ average across 11 infrastructure categories, Louisiana’s roads, bridges, dams and ports are failing the public. Politics, it would seem, could get in the way of solving a well-documented problem.

But Wilson’s remarks point not only to rank partisanship, but to the rivalry of local and regional jurisdictions angling for state dollars for hometown projects.

Wilson says some legislators are holding fast to the time-honored Louisiana tradition of political horse-trading, insisting that their votes for a gas tax increase be compensated with infrastructure work back home. The problem, as Wilson sees it, is that these projects are often rural roadway expansions with little state or even regional utility. Those deals are a tough sell for Wilson at a time that he’s messaging improved accountability and stewardship to the public purse.

Prompted by an audience question, Wilson declined to make a rosy proclamation on the impending fate of his gas hike, instead spelling out his expectation that the groundwork toward a vote on the gas tax would be laid next week in three bills.

First, a bill by State Sen. Page Cortez to remove funding for the state police from the state’s transportation trust fund. Second, a bill that specifies gas tax monies would not go to salaries or benefits for employees of the Department of Transportation and Development. Third, the tax hike bill itself, proposing a 17-cent increase to the state’s long out-of-date gas tax. Louisianans currently pay 38.4 cents per gallon in gas taxes, a value that’s not moved or been adjusted for inflation since it was first pegged in 1989.

Wilson also hopes to index any new tax to some dynamic factor, like inflation, to allow the tax to retain buying power over time.

The additional funds raised would commit a lion’s share of new funding (40 to 50 percent of new revenues) to the state’s backlog of 40 megaprojects, valued at more than $10 billion. Another 37 percent of new revenue would go to “preservation,” generally defined as maintenance and overlay projects. The remaining share would split the department’s other, non-highway, responsibilities including a 6 percent share to ports and rail. Those percentages were computed with the assumed $700 million increase in new monies to transportation.

Poorly maintained and out-of-date infrastructure figures prominently into the state’s failing infrastructure grades. For the most part, the state’s megaproject list affects congestion, which Wilson and his supporters say have cost the state economic opportunities. Wilson noted that the state lost a $10 billion Exxon project to Texas because of poor freight capacity.

Roughly half the state’s infamous backlog is in maintenance and overlay issues. Other states, like Tennessee and Virginia, have opted to re-evaluate their backlogs on a project by project basis, removing heritage projects that don’t produce much benefit on the dollar or finding cheaper solutions to the problems the projects are meant to solve.

The current megaproject list, which includes the Lafayette Connector (budgeted at $750 million in a new Transportation Infrastructure Investment Plan) and lots of roadway expansions, was re-vetted in 2015. Wilson said in an interview with The IND that he sees no project that could be removed from the list.

Some of that, he says, is a concession to regional politics. Removing megaprojects in any of DOTD’s regional districts could jeopardize the political capital necessary for the department’s plans going forward. As contentious as the state’s spending climate currently is, alienating tenuous allies is something Wilson is reluctant to risk.