Ascension road tax defeat dissected

Officials in Ascension Parish are back at square one trying to find ways to address a growing traffic problem in the parish.

Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly defeated a 25-year, half-cent sales tax proposition that would have been earmarked for traffic improvements on state and local roads throughout unincorporated areas of the parish.

More than 65 percent of qualified voters in the parish cast ballots on the referendum, with 57 percent of them opposing the tax. The opposition to the tax came from across the parish, with just two precincts showing more than a dozen voters supporting the proposal — and those two precincts were split 50-50 with a total of three more “yes” votes than “no.”

“We’re certainly disappointed,” said Chris Loar, Ascension Parish Council chairman. “We thought we had a good plan that had never been presented before as far as specific projects and the investment we were asking people to make — 16 cents a day — certainly was something people would be willing to support.”

Al Robert, the vice chairman of the Ascension Parish Republican Parish Executive Committee, which opposed the tax and fought for its defeat, said he was “very pleased” that parish voters united in opposition to the parish’s plan, which focused on widening key intersections with the addition of turning lanes.

“I think anybody who found out the reason for the tax and did their homework would not vote for it, would not consider voting for it,” Robert said.

Loar said he believes the parish fell victim to voters who “couldn’t differentiate” the revenue needs among the parish, state and federal governments. He said the claims made by opponents who said the parish has wasted resources and doesn’t need new revenue streams were “such a joke” because the parish has managed on a “shoestring budget” successfully during the recession.

Robert, however, said the parish’s plan, which would have spent more than $90 million on local and regional road improvements and more than $50 million on state and federal projects with hopes of leveraging funds from the state Department of Transportation and Development for those projects, didn’t spend the money in the right places. Opponents to the plan especially were against the fact that it didn’t build any new roads to try to relieve the parish’s growing traffic burden, Robert said.

“It might have made the roads a little safer, but it was not going to decrease the traffic,” he said.

Loar said he thought the plan laid out before the voters — with funds dedicated to specific projects and supplemental projects listed in case conservative revenue projections yielded additional money — was one that addressed the current problem of how to keep traffic moving while also
setting the stage for projected future growth in the parish.

Without the roughly $200 million the tax was expected to generate during the next 25 years, Loar said, parish leaders now must continue working with the state and federal government officials to try to supplement the parish’s limited road budget.

“I guess we’ll just continue doing this thing piecemeal,” Loar said.

Robert said the answer to the parish’s current problems should be the construction of new thoroughfares to help traffic flow better. He also said a toll road — whether it’s the one being discussed at La. 447 and La. 42 between officials in Livingston and Ascension parishes, or a larger Baton Rouge loop project that would include those parishes and others in the region — should be a part of the solution.

“We definitely know something is going to have to be done, but what they were proposing was not the answer,” Robert said.

The parish currently lacks the resources to address the problem, Loar said. His biggest complaint is that opponents to the tax haven’t given parish leaders any ideas about how they would address the traffic issues facing the parish, adding he’s open to listening to new ideas and solutions.

“If anyone out there has ideas of how we can raise $155 million like we were trying to do or show us how parish government can be more efficient and come up with $8 million to $10 million per year, we’d love to hear it,” Loar said.

Parish leaders know the parish’s traffic infrastructure isn’t getting any better, Loar said, so they now have to create a new plan that residents can buy into and support.

“I suppose we have to,” Loar said. “I don’t know how we demonstrate to people. It’s going to take something. We have to raise revenue some way. We can’t make money magically appear.”