Louisiana has a backlog of more than $12 billion in needed road repairs, highway upgrades and bridge work.
The figure is staggering, and lawmakers regularly talk in distressed terms about its implications. But they’ve found no way to chip away at the lengthy list of projects.
“It’s going to take some difficult decisions,” said Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Fee increases have gone nowhere when proposed. Changes to the current tax structure have been shelved. Toll road suggestions tend to be non-starters.
Meanwhile, the value of the state’s 20-cent per gallon gasoline tax has been eaten away by inflationary costs in construction and engineering, plus 4 cents of the tax is dedicated to a special list of projects that have gone sizably over-budget.
Frustration was noticeable at a recent House and Senate transportation committee hearing, but lawmakers left the discussion the same way it started, with a lot of displeasure about the backlog and no agreed-upon, passable way to drum up new dollars to shrink it.
Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes tax hikes, leaving legislative attempts to boost taxes or fees to pay for road and bridge projects with little traction.
In addition, the Jindal administration and lawmakers have eaten into the pool of dedicated roadwork money, steering $40 million to pay for retirement benefits and millions more this year to help balance the budget elsewhere.
In the most recent legislative session, Rep. Karen St. Germain, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, suggested tying Louisiana’s gas tax to grow with the Consumer Price Index that measures inflation. The proposal, to generate $149 million over five years for the Department of Transportation and Development, never got out of the House tax committee.
“Nobody likes to talk about fees. Nobody likes to talk about taxes. You find me another way to fund DOTD, I am more than happy to push it,” St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, said at the joint transportation committee hearing.
The committee was looking at the list of projects in line to get funding next year, but inevitably, those conversations turned to discussion of the multibillion-dollar backlog.
Dennis Decker, an assistant secretary in the transportation department, said DOTD is proposing $677 million in spending on projects in the upcoming 2014-15 fiscal year.
Then, he noted that the money falls short of the agency’s needs, which he said stands at $12.1 billion, to maintain roads and bridges, address congestion problems and improve safety conditions.
“It’s a huge number, no doubt about it,” Decker said. “When you see our budget beside it, it looks mighty small.”
The backlog had topped $14 billion six years ago, but a combination of state surplus money and federal stimulus dollars poured into roadwork helped shrink the list. That was the only bright spot of news, followed by a bleak projection.
“Unfortunately at this funding level, it’s going to be difficult for us to actually bring that number down, and we’re going to be fighting to actually keep it from rising back on us I’m afraid in the future,” Decker told lawmakers.
Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said the backlog doesn’t even include legislative wish lists for new projects.
Adley suggested lawmakers will have to agree to new revenue sources to pay for the infrastructure work if they want to lessen the backlog.
“I’m a term limited senator with about 40 years of experience, and I’m telling you, sooner or later if you want to leave some mark in the history book, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions, and people back home are going to have to understand that,” he said.
Lawmakers a few years ago agreed to dedicate Louisiana’s vehicle sales tax to road repairs, ports and other transportation projects. The move is supposed to generate hundreds of millions for road and bridge work, but the triggers to begin the seven-year phase-in aren’t expected to kick in until 2017.
Meanwhile, the backlog remains unaddressed, threatening to grow.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.