Trump’s transportation budget threatens the Connector

by Christiaan Mader

A budget that counts on private investment could count out completing the Connector any time soon.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson
Photo by Robin May

Even if the unlikely happens, and recalcitrant state Republicans pass a gas tax hike this legislative session, megaprojects like the I-49 Connector could hit a wall: Trump's proposed budget.

Call it a potential double whammy for the decades-old Connector: a gas tax fails at the state level and Trump’s budget passes Congress with an appended hike in the amount of state matched dollars required to access federal funds for transportation projects.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson and the governor have made it plain that failure to raise additional revenue would essentially doom the Connector and really any major new capacity projects like it. In an interview with The IND, Wilson said that if forced to work with existing revenue rates, he would opt to push those dollars toward preservation and maintenance of the state’s 16,000 miles of roads.

Wilson and Governor John Bel Edwards have lamented having to raid the state’s general fund to raise enough money to access federal dollars already pulled out of state tax payers via federal income taxes etc. Louisiana is teetering on donor statehood.

By and large the Trump budget, which is not expected to pass though Congress unchanged, takes aim at transit and competitive grant funding, slashing the Federal Transit Administration’s New Start budget by 43 percent and completely eliminating the TIGER grant program, which awarded the city of Lafayette a half-million dollar grant to plan around the Connector. That’s riled up transportation advocates in the urbanism world who say the budget unfairly penalizes states and localities that have effectively raised tax dollars for transit projects and expect federal match.

But for the Connector, the trouble begins with what appears to be a reduction in direct federal spending on highway projects and ends with the specter of a required 50 percent match to access federal money.

Presently, Louisiana pulls down around $400 million per year in federal dollars that can go to new highway projects like the Connector, a stipend that’s packaged in the 2015 FAST Act authorization. Louisiana puts up 10 percent of the cost of qualifying projects to pull down the remaining 90 percent from federal coffers. Even if the state gets the gas tax through, a 50 percent required match would likely put the Connector out of reach financially and in strategic limbo, given the state’s maintenance and operations budget. A new bridge over the Mississippi or a replacement for the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles would generate more private interest and are arguably far more urgently needed.

Were Trump’s transportation budget to pass into law relatively unscathed, the federal financing pivot toward an ambitious leveraging of private dollars. As proposed, the Trump administration essentially plans to use $200 billion in public dollars to stimulate the vaunted $1 trillion in infrastructure investment the president campaigned on.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing according to transportation advocates of all stripes. Conservatives and progressives alike have come around to the utility of public private partnerships, particularly as they pertain to capital asset cash producers like airports, transit and high-trafficked toll roads.

But Wilson argues that projects like the Connector, or really any of the state’s major capacity-expanding megaprojects, would fail to attract much in the way of private investment on their pro formas. Investors in a privatized toll plaza, let’s say, would need to see high traffic counts to be guaranteed a profit. Projects like the Connector simply won’t generate the tantalizing traffic counts profiteers would crave, even if the doomsday traffic counts forecasted on the Evangeline Thruway come true.

All of this, of course, begs an important question: What happens to the Connector if the state is forced to walk away for financial reasons? Wilson insists that the project’s utility will prevent it from being killed outright if money doesn’t line up when the project is shovel ready. (Even optimistic timelines would have ground breaking on the Connector a couple years from now.) Segments could be completed ahead of construction of the capital intensive portions of the design within the city's urban core.

That may be music to Connector opponents. But make no mistake, a delayed Connector could be a disaster.

If the state is going to walk away from this project, it needs to do so once and for all. Allowing the Connector neighborhoods to languish in disinvestment would be criminally neglectful, forcing thousands of Lafayette residents to await federal and state priorities to align on a project already dangerous to quality of life in the Corridor. More than likely, the state would continue to acquire properties, exacerbating already worrisome levels of disinvestment. (As of 2016, the state had spent roughly $10 million to buy some 50 properties, so many in fact, that the local DOTD district office had to ask for money to buy a new lawnmower to maintain its de facto land bank.)

Should the bleak funding prophesy turn out to be true — and there’s good reason to believe that Wilson’s warnings are not partisan bluffery — the real losers in the funding double whammy would be the folks in live along the Evangeline Thruway.