GONZALES — Ascension Parish government leaders are close to finalizing a 25-year road improvement plan that would spend $135 million from new sales tax revenue and state highway credits in its first phase, plans show.
Parish officials said the plan would address overdue road needs in view of Ascension’s nearly 40 percent population growth surge from 2000 to 2010.
The first phase of work would focus primarily on bridges and intersection improvements across the parish’s central grid of roads — such as new left turn lanes, new traffic signals or conversion into modern roundabouts — to improve the traffic flow.
With the exception of adding a third lane in each direction of Airline Highway from near La. 42 to Roddy Road, the plan would put off expensive additions of new traffic lanes.
New lanes on La. 621, La. 73 and La. 431 show up in a supplemental round of projects totaling at least another $215 million so far, which won’t be funded with the first round of anticipated bond issues.
A long-awaited widening of La. 42 in Prairieville, however, is not part of the parish plan. State highway officials have been working on that project separately.
A proposed half-cent sales tax that would be collected in Ascension’s unincorporated areas would provide key funding. Parish officials said they want the sales tax proposition on the Nov. 6 election ballot.
The proposed sales tax would generate $8 million a year. It would likely fund a pair of $40 million, 20-year bond issues, to help pay for the road program and leave about $3 million a year for additional “pay as you go” work, according to the plan.
Another $56 million in state highway credits would stem from the parish’s participation in a relatively new Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development program to “right size,” or reduce, the number of state highway miles in Louisiana.
Facing deadlines to get before the State Bond Commission by August, the Parish Council plans key votes to put the proposed half-cent sales tax on the ballot. The votes are scheduled at the council’s 6 p.m. Thursday meeting in the Parish Courthouse Annex, 828 S. Irma Blvd., Gonzales.
The proposed tax would exclude the parish’s municipalities and would largely steer construction projects away from them. If approved, the new sales tax would boost the total sales tax rate from 8.5 percent to 9 percent in unincorporated areas.
Proposed ballot language says collections would start Jan. 1.
In speaking to the council Transportation Committee last month, Parish President Tommy Martinez said the new tax is needed because the parish’s existing road funding, primarily two-thirds of an existing half-cent sales tax and surplus funds from the parish’s 1-cent sales tax collections, goes largely to road maintenance.
“So this is an opportunity, hopefully, to present to the people of Ascension Parish a plan that will help that infrastructure along at a quicker pace,” he said.
“If we continue doing what we doing, the only thing we are going to be able to do is maintain what we have and may not be able to do that adequately,” Martinez said.
In exchange for the DOTD credits, which would pay for maintenance of certain state highways for 40 years, the parish would gradually take permanent control of more than 100 miles of state highways in Ascension in good condition, according to the plan.
These smaller, two-lane highways are links in the parish grid but have been deemed by DOTD not to be the major regional connectors it wants to retain control over, such as La. 42, La. 431, parts of La. 73 or Airline.
Dustin Annison, DOTD spokesman, said the state is trying to reduce state highway mileage so that the agency can focus its dollars on capacity improvements.
He said DOTD puts about $10 million for road transfers in its budget and is looking to make it $25 million a year.
Travis Woodard, project manager with CSRS Inc., a parish consulting firm, said the new sales tax would provide the local match to federal funds for the work. Those federal funds are the DOTD highway credits, he said.
But the transfer program, which will be done on a case-by-case basis matching projects with highways of certain credit values, has prompted long-term maintenance worries.
Councilman Todd Lambert has advocated that 20 percent of the new sales tax revenue be set aside for maintenance on any parish roads.
He said he will press to include the percentage in the ballot language Thursday but did say he thinks the road plan will help halt traffic bottlenecks at intersections.
“I am for all the intersection improvements. I do know that is going to make the traffic a whole lot better. That is going make it flow,” he said.