A gas tax bill crafted by a statewide industry group, Louisiana Coalition to Fix Our Roads, and sponsored by Republican Baton Rouge Rep. Steve Carter is the latest proposed solution to the state’s aging, chronically gridlocked transportation infrastructure.
It’s also the most ambitious. Not only would the bill gradually increase the state’s gasoline tax, but it would levy fees on electric and hybrid vehicles and redirect a temporary, half-cent sales tax to highway and bridge construction projects.
It would also dedicate a portion of the funds to specific, badly needed projects around the state, including a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, a new Calcasieu River bridge in Lake Charles and the completion of Interstate 49 south from Lafayette to New Orleans.
Perhaps most significantly, the bill would ensure all new revenue generated by the taxes and fees go only to construction projects—as opposed to operations at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development—by safeguarding them in a dedicated subfund of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.
Though the bill effectively satisfies every problem opponents have had with past efforts to raise the gas tax, it’s likely to face stiff opposition from a coalition of strange bedfellows: Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who doesn’t want to raise taxes in a year when he’s up for re-election year, and conservative lawmakers, who don’t want to raise taxes ever.
That said, at least parts of the bill are supported by influential economic development and business groups, including the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. They understand the state’s economic future is at stake. The public, too, is more desperate than ever for solutions, particularly after the traffic nightmares that snarled the Capital Region in late March, most notably when the La. 1 bridge in Port Allen was partially shut down.
“That really got everyone’s attention,” says political consultant Roy Fletcher. “It put even more focus on the importance of getting a new bridge.”
In an unrelated effort, Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, and Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, are proposing a bill that would dedicate some $50 million a year in BP settlement funds to a handful of highway projects, among them, a new flyover ramp connecting Lobdell in West Baton Rouge Parish across the Intercoastal Waterway to La. 1.
The state will receive some $750 million over the next 12 years for economic damage caused by the 2010 oil spill—money that’s separate from the BP funds earmarked for coastal restoration projects—and Ward says it would “be a waste if we didn’t find a way to dedicate the money to badly needed infrastructure projects.”
Meanwhile, a five-parish regional taxing authority created by a Ward-sponsored bill during the 2018 session continues its preliminary work of finding ways to fund a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge. Though the coalition hasn’t actually done much in its year-long existence, it has brought together the five parish presidents—literally in the same room—to talk about potential solutions. That may not sound like much but to anyone who knows local politics, it’s huge.
So what will come of it all?
It’s hard to say. What is certain is that at no time in recent history have so many been so focused on finding solutions to Baton Rouge’s traffic woes.
Though 2019 may not be the year when serious legislation is passed, it might be the year that lays the ground work for what will come in 2020.