Parish chief: Plan ‘drastic’

Tommy Martinez admits that his new transportation proposal is “drastic” and goes against his core values of trying to bring economic development to Ascension Parish.

However, the parish president said the November defeat of a half-cent sales tax that would have been dedicated to improving the parish’s roads has made it necessary for him to think outside of the box.

During the Ascension Parish Council’s Transportation Committee at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Martinez is expected to ask the council to consider an ordinance that wouldn’t add any new roads to the parish’s existing grid of roughly 500 miles of roadway, unless developers compensate the parish for maintenance costs.

“That’s contrary to my beliefs, but we can’t continue taking roads into the system that we can’t maintain,” he said.

Martinez said the parish government has about $7.5 million a year to spend on road construction and maintenance. However, the failed road tax would have raised nearly $150 million in additional revenue during its 25-year lifetime that the parish could have applied to local, state and federal road projects.

Instead, Martinez said, the parish will have to keep on making do with its annual $7.5 million or so earmarked for roads. About $6 million of that figure comes from two-thirds of a half-percent sales tax that is dedicated for road maintenance with the remainder coming from surplus general fund dollars left over at the end of each fiscal year, he said.

However, the parish’s chief engineer, Ben Laurie, said that amount of money isn’t enough for the parish to do any major road projects. Instead, he said, parish officials are left trying to piecemeal current roads and keep them up to par.

“We are going to maximize what we can do with a long-term strategy of bringing the whole network up to one standard,” Laurie said.

He said the parish officials’ plan is to preserve current roads, trying to use strategies such as chip and crack sealing to extend the life of roads and reduce recurring costs of overlaying.

“That’s far cheaper than doing total reconstruction,” Laurie said.

Martinez said the parish does have the opportunity to place another proposed road tax before voters, though Gov. Bobby Jindal’s suggestion to eliminate the state income tax by increasing state sales taxes — if it becomes law — could make local sales tax elections even tougher in the future.

“I’m not opposed to that, but at this point I’m not going to initiate that,” Martinez said.

If members of the Parish Council are interested in another tax — and some councilmen have expressed that to him, Martinez said — they will need to bring that forward instead of the administration, he said.

Martinez said money from the failed road tax would have been sufficient to complete projects during the next 10 years that now likely will take a century to do.

While he’s philosophically opposed to turning away economic development in the parish, Martinez said, the parish isn’t left with any other options.

“I don’t know how it’s going to affect development in the parish,” Martinez said, “but at this point, it would be irresponsible of parish government to take in a number of new roads because we can’t maintain them.”