Local and state lawmakers pitch solutions at Better Transportation and Roads Summit in Baton Rouge

    Local, state and federal leaders spent this morning grappling with how to best fix Louisiana’s congested roads and aging infrastructure at the city-parish’s inaugural Better Transportation and Roads Summit.   

    Lawmakers and experts including Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development Secretary Shawn Wilson and Mayor Sharon Weston Broome pitched their ideas, including ramping up technology investment, increasing revenue and overhauling public transit.

    Dozens of local and state lawmakers, business leaders and members of the public attended the event, which also featured Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond.  

    “This region right here has been really mistreated or discriminated against more so than anywhere else in the state,” Graves said, adding he is connecting city leaders with officials from Google to look for ways to “revolutionize” the transportation system.

    The meeting comes at the same time the Legislature is set to debate whether to increase the state gasoline tax and find other ways to pay for needed infrastructure projects. Wilson plugged the recommendation from a task force on transportation he chaired over the last year to increase the state gasoline tax.

    “We get what we pay for here in the state of Louisiana,” Wilson said.

    Several dozen business groups from throughout the state have endorsed increasing the state’s existing gas tax of 38.4-cents by 15 to 20 cents. The Louisiana chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business opposes the idea.

    State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, has introduced a bill to increase the state gasoline tax by 17-cents. Carter said he is working on building a coalition on the conservative, anti-tax House Ways and Means Committee, which will likely hold a hearing on his proposal in two weeks.

    “There’s about four or five members from Baton Rouge, so we’re hoping to get them and a few more members who realize that something needs to be done,” he said.

    Carter added his and other bills will include accountability measures to ensure the money raised will go to roads and bridges, and will bar other branches of government from raiding the Transportation Trust Fund. The idea that gasoline tax dollars are spent mostly on things other than infrastructure is perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of gas tax advocates.   

    Wilson noted that with the current trend in funding the state will not have enough money to match the $700 million Louisiana receives from the federal government each year, let alone an infrastructure spending package floated by President Donald Trump’s administration.

    Graves said parts of the “trillion dollar” infrastructure-spending bill the Trump administration has said it will pursue hinges on passing a health care overhaul, which failed earlier this year. Gutting spending on health care programs like Medicaid would pay for tax cuts where Graves said Congress would incentivize private-public partnerships. If all goes as planned, Congress would take up an infrastructure bill in the first quarter of 2018.

    Later today the summit, which is being held at the Renaissance Hotel, will address urban transportation, technology and safety, among other topics.

    —Sam Karlin

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