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Increasing transportation spending will be challenging, DOTD leader says

The head of the state Department of Transportation and Development today acknowledged the political challenges of convincing the Legislature to increase transportation spending by $700 million at a time of recurring budget shortfalls.

“There is an appetite for projects,” DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said at the Press Club of Baton Rouge’s weekly meeting. “There is not an appetite to pay for (them).”

A task force chaired by Wilson reported to the Legislature recently that the state needs a $700 million boost in infrastructure spending to keep up with peer states and fix issues like Interstate 10 congestion and aging bridges. Wilson declined to say exactly how much that money should come from a gas tax, but he has for several months tried to rally support for an increase to Louisiana’s relatively low fuel tax.

But talk of more money comes at a time when the Legislature is battling over how to solve a $304 million midyear budget shortfall during what was expected to be a routine special session.

Later this year, the Legislature has its sights set on revamping the state’s entire tax and spending code, which will bring tough votes in attempts to aid a budget that systematically brings in less money than it spends.

Other ideas, aside from an increased gas tax, include tax increment financing, PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes) and public-private partnerships, which Wilson said are being looked at to solve problems in the I-10 corridor.

The secretary also fought back against the idea that DOTD spends the majority of its budget on “bureaucratic waste.” Louisiana State Police used to receive $70 million per year from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, but Gov. John Bel Edwards removed them from the fund. In addition, roughly 5% of DOTD’s budget is spent on administrative costs, Wilson said.

Wilson said there will be a bill that would increase the gas tax in the regular legislative session in April, and added the Legislature should index the gas tax to either the Consumer Price Index, construction costs or vehicle fuel efficiency to make it a sustainable source of funding.

“It’s very difficult to talk about increased funding when the Legislature is looking at (cutting spending),” he said.

—Sam Karlin

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