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Louisiana’s transportation needs obvious, but solutions remain hard to find

March 14, 2017
By Will Sentell
Originally Posted on The Advocate

Less than a month before the 2017 regular legislative session begins, the upcoming debate on how and whether to boost state aid for roads and bridges is riddled with questions, including Gov. John Bel Edwards' stance.

In December a task force named by the governor said the state needs to spend another $700 million per year to tackle transportation problems, and that a hike in the state gasoline tax is the most reliable path.

But little has happened since then, other than wide agreement that a $700 million increase will not happen.

Officials said Tuesday that, rather than rolling out his own proposal, Edwards plans to endorse road and bridge bills offered by lawmakers that would have a major impact on the $29 billion in backlogs.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, made that point Monday in an appearance before the powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

"What I shared with LABI is that the governor is wanting to do something on transportation but that it needs to be something bigger than the governor's bill," Wilson said Tuesday.

"I don't think you are going to see a bill that is going to be part of the governor's package," he added.

Wilson said the governor believes the task force did a thorough job.

"In fact, he will look to them to help grow the coalition and lead the grassroots efforts to help advance this issue," he said in a prepared statement released Tuesday by Edwards' office.

Stephen Waguespack, president of LABI, said Monday's transportation forum, including Wilson, featured good discussions.

"But the elephant in the room is not knowing what new taxes the governor is looking for and how he wants to spend the money," Waguespack said.

"Everyone is waiting to hear specifics from him on what he wants," he said.

Most agree that state roads, bridges and other forms of transportation are in desperate need of more dollars, especially in the Baton Rouge area.

Louisiana's state gasoline tax – 20 cents on the 38.4 cents per gallon motorists pay – is among the oldest in the nation.

Edwards has repeatedly said bold action is needed, and that his support for transportation is "unyielding."

He told a group on Feb. 17 that he would spell out his position soon.

But the governor, a Democrat, is also grappling with another major shortfall for all state services, perhaps $500 million.

Any gasoline tax boost, like others, requires the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate, always an uphill political battle.

If Edwards lines up behind transportation bills sponsored by lawmakers, especially Republicans, it would help offset charges that he is making another tax-and-spend run, officials said.

Who those lawmakers will be is unclear.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, has repeatedly said he does not think voters would support a major boost in the state gasoline tax.

He said he thinks Edwards' focus will be on the state operating budget.

Havard, who in January said he was considering a a hydrocarbon processing tax for transportation and other state needs, said Tuesday he has dropped that idea. The lawmaker said he plans to propose a gross receipts tax, eliminate the state's corporate income tax and trim the individual income tax.

Wilson, in his meeting with LABI, said the transportation debate needs a resolution in 2017 before politics loom over the discussions, even more than now.

"You are not going to have a major tax overhaul right before an election," he said Tuesday.

All state House members and some senators face re-election in 2018.

Edwards said he plans to seek a second term in 2019.

How any new transportation dollars would be used also remains a key issue.

Waguespack, whose group played a key role in last year's tax hike debates, said whether the money would be spent appropriately and how projects are picked needs attention.

"Only the (Edwards) administration can give that assurance," he said.

Waguespack served as chief of staff for former GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal.

U. S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who also addressed LABI on Monday – it was closed to the press – has raised similar concerns.

Graves said in October that, while the state needs to spend more on transportation, it also needs to build more credibility with the public on current spending practices.

Wilson told LABI that DOTD has lower administrative costs per mile than 36 other states.

"I think the timing is now," he said Tuesday. "People have waited for nearly 30 years to invest in infrastructure in a meaningful way."