Everyone’s talking about Louisiana’s road problem. Is the state finally ready to do something about it?

A view of traffic congestion in Baton Rouge. File photo.

Is Louisiana finally ready to start tackling its infrastructure issues, which include some of the worst-maintained roads and bridges in the nation, gridlocked thoroughfares in some of the state’s biggest cities, a $12 billion backlog of projects and a Transportation Trust Fund that is insufficient to take care of needs?

There are encouraging signs that more than just the media and frustrated motorists are engaging in serious conversations about the problem. First, throughout the governor’s race, transportation and infrastructure issues have come up in forums and debates, and all four candidates seem genuinely committed to doing something, though it’s not at all clear what that would be.

Second, business groups are bringing greater attention to the issue. Chambers of commerce across the state are making it a major plank in their election agendas, and they’re planning to hold candidates’ feet to the fire on the subject.

Third, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development is in the preliminary stages of a feasibility study to address congestion along the Interstate 10 corridor in Baton Rouge from La. 415 in West Baton Rouge Parish to Essen Lane. Though it’s still early in the process, if the feasibility study recommends further study, engineers and consultants will begin looking, in earnest, at possible solutions to the Capital Region’s gridlock—including a new bridge across the Mississippi River.

Finally, a nonprofit organization, the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, is launching a grassroots campaign to make the economic argument for why doing nothing about the state’s roads and bridges costs more than increasing the state’s 20-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax.

“Because of our bad roads we pay $418 a year in vehicle maintenance,” Ken Perret, the association’s president, told the Press Club of Baton Rouge earlier this month. “So even though we pay $55 less than the national average in gas tax, we pay a big penalty in bad road tax.”

All the chatter about the issue is more than mere rhetoric, according to Council for a Better Louisiana President and CEO Barry Erwin. He has been following the issue for a long time, and he believes things are different this election season.

“I think there will be an increased focus on infrastructure this year, far more than we have seen in the past,” he says. “It’s a combination of two things: Congestion is just getting so bad in some areas that people are sick of it and it threatens economic development. Also, several communities have mega-
project needs and desires that they are really going to be pushing candidates on.”

How to address these problems and fund these projects will be the challenge. While Perret’s group favors raising the gasoline tax by 10 cents and giving local governments authority to raise their own gasoline taxes, the gubernatorial candidates all stress the importance of protecting the Transportation Trust Fund, which is intended for infrastructure projects but frequently raided by lawmakers for other transportation-related purposes.

It won’t be easy, no matter who is elected. But Erwin, for one, is encouraged that the state is taking the infrastructure issue seriously. “Bottom line, it will get much more attention than we have seen before,” he says.

Stephanie Riegel

 

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