Senate leader suggests highway funding fixes

Senator Robert Adley
Senator Robert Adley

The chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee said Wednesday that the state should consider a wide range of short-term steps to ease Louisiana’s road funding woes.

One issue that needs review is using $60 million per year of state gasoline tax revenue to help fund State Police, state Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said.

Adley repeatedly noted that the state is spending only $27 million a year on highway preservation, well below the $70 million or so spent in recent years.

He said voters would be stunned to know how much is siphoned off from the state’s 20-cent-per-gallon state gasoline tax for non-transportation purposes.

“They never dreamed that State Police would get $60 million while roads get $27 million,” Adley said.

Adley made his comments during a meeting of the influential policy committee for the Louisiana Statewide Transportation Plan.

The nine-member panel includes key lawmakers, state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri LeBas and others who advise DOTD and the Legislature on transportation priorities.

The state has long faced a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

“We need more money,” said Sen. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, House Transportation Committee chairwoman.

However, longshot efforts to generate more revenue for highways have repeatedly died in the Legislature, in part because Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes any tax hikes.

An interim legislative committee is set to hold hearings starting in September on ways to generate new highway dollars.

The state collects $630 million per year in federal highway dollars.

But even that funding stream is in jeopardy amid bickering in Congress.

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 New Roads and St. Francisville.

The projects are known as TIMED.

Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary of DOTD, said that the state is spending an extra penny — 5 cents in all — for the projects because more money is needed to retire the debt.

Adley said the state may want to reconsider refinancing the debt to ensure more gas tax revenue is available for roads and bridges.

Transportation projects are in line for up to $400 million a year in new revenue from the sales tax revenue starting around 2020.

That stems from a 2007 law, which is supposed to move sales tax dollars on cars and trucks from the state general fund to transportation needs.

However, Adley and others are skeptical that roads and bridges will ever see that money, mostly because of other state needs.

He said a more realistic goal would be to collect about $80 million per year in new aid from sales tax dollars, which would address yearly road and bridge preservation needs.

Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, echoed Adley’s concerns that the state is spending about $46 million per year for parish road needs, which is about $16 more than required.

Walsworth questioned the wisdom of that spending when state road and bridge priorities are backed up.

Adley said part of the problem is that money from Louisiana’s gas tax is spread too thin.

He said discussion of establishing a minimum fund of $25 million for freight rail construction projects points up the problem.

“The people want this money back on the roads,” Adley said.

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