Panel set to look for ways to fix Louisiana roads, bridges

Despite steep odds, a special panel is about to launch a study of ways to boost state aid for Louisiana’s often-criticized road and bridge system.

The Transportation Funding Task Force, which includes legislative leaders and others, was authorized by the Legislature earlier this year and is set to hold its first public hearing on Sept. 10 in Baton Rouge.

“There is not a legislator across the state that does not have some kind of issues with getting a project done, starting a project, finishing a project,” said state Rep. Karen St. Germain, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee and a member of the panel.

St. Germain said that, unlike previous road funding studies and bills that went nowhere, this one comes amid a widespread public outcry about road conditions.

“It is about people saying, ‘I can’t get to the doctor from here, I can’t get to the hospital from here,’ ” the Pierre Part Democrat said.

The legislation that authorized the study, House Concurrent Resolution 166, is supposed to review “all potential funding mechanisms” and file a report with the House and Senate transportation committees by Jan. 15.

The eight-member panel includes:

St. Germain and her Senate counterpart, state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, or their designees

State Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri LeBas or her representative

Private members include Kam Movassaghi, former secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Council of Engineering Companies, and Kenneth Perret, a former top official of DOTD who is now president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association.

The study comes at a time of both highway improvements, including in the Baton Rouge area, and a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

DOTD officials say $540 million has been spent on road and bridge upgrades since 2008 in East Baton Rouge Parish alone, mostly through surplus state dollars after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and federal stimulus dollars.

However, the Baton Rouge area is considered ground zero for motorists’ complaints, including heavy congestion on and near the Interstate 10 Mississippi River bridge.

Adley said one aim of the study is “to try to get everyone to understand how serious the problem is and how far behind we are.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that few taxpayers realize how much money is diverted from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, the key source of road and bridge aid.

Adley has complained that $60 million of state gasoline tax revenue yearly helps fund State Police at a time when the state cannot come up with at least $70 million a year for road preservation.

“So the goal for me, bottom line, is to try to find at least $70 million that allows us to preserve what we have,” he said.

Even sponsors of the task force — the legislation was sponsored by Adley and St. Germain — concede there are limits to what the panel can hope to accomplish.

Adley noted that state services already face a $1.2 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins on July 1, 2015.

“It makes it all the more difficult,” he said of efforts to boost highway aid amid state financial problems.

Efforts in the Legislature to generate new dollars for roads and bridges have died for years and attracted little attention.

Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes any tax and fee hikes, and his stance has helped quell serious attempts to tackle the highway issue.

In an email response to questions, Movassaghi said the state lacks the funding needed to meet existing needs.

“Increasing revenues means either additional fees or taxes, and that is where the problem starts,” he wrote.

“What kind of tax or fee increase is our elected leadership or the public willing to accept if any,” Movassaghi said.

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon in Louisiana for state and federal taxes.

That includes 16 cents for rank-and-file projects and 4 cents for 16 projects that voters approved in 1989, including a new bridge that connects St. Francisville and New Roads.

Perret said the state should consider linking the gasoline tax to an inflation index; boosting fees for a driver’s license and license plates, vehicle inspections and truck registrations and setting up a State Transportation Commission, with independent authority like those in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi.

“We can’t just say we need more funding; that will not sell,” said Perret, former assistant secretary at DOTD for planning and programming.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.