The Louisiana Legislative Auditor has released a report looking at the state’s current and future ability to pay for its transportation needs. While the findings don’t tell us much that we don’t already know – that the revenues we have are insufficient – it’s another wakeup call to remind us that despite a recent influx in investment, infrastructure will remain a major issue well into the future.
Overall, the auditor’s report is pretty blunt: for many years the state’s Transportation Trust Fund has not had enough revenue to meet the state’s transportation needs and it’s only going to get worse in the future. It’s been short of adequate resources in the past because fuel taxes, the major source of TTF revenue, have not kept up with inflation and remained at the same level for more than 30 years.
Adding to the problem is the fact that fuel efficiency has increased over the last three decades which means that revenue available for “vehicle miles traveled” has decreased almost 65%. And because of inflation, the 20 cents per gallon in gasoline taxes most motorists pay is worth only about half of what it was in 1990.
The report does note that recent legislation to dedicate a portion of vehicle sales taxes to the TTF, coupled with new usage fees for electric vehicles, will be helpful. And the influx of federal pandemic relief dollars and the national infrastructure legislation will make a significant difference for Louisiana in the coming years.
But much of that money is targeted to mega-projects like major new bridges and new Interstate construction. Those capacity-building projects are much-needed, but even with those new dollars, we still fall far short of funding the state’s overall $14.8 billion transportation backlog.
The report makes seven recommendations for the Legislature to consider in addressing the problem. They run the gamut from finding other sources to pay off old infrastructure debt to raising or indexing fuel taxes to inflation.
None of those things are going to happen anytime soon. The steps the state has recently taken to bolster TTF funds and target the additional federal dollars will provide some measure of short-term relief that will allow state leaders to take their eyes off the issue for a while.
But what the report makes clear is that a long-term problem remains, and stagnant fuel taxes – already decimated by inflation and the growth in high-milage vehicles – won’t be enough to sustain the levels of investment a thriving state will require.
With state elections coming up next year, we need candidates who will articulate a vision for Louisiana’s future that goes beyond soundbites and the often unsavory rhetoric we hear in other states. Louisiana has real issues to contend with – low education attainment, a less than diversified economy, poor health, only a trickle of people moving into the state, and, yes, major infrastructure needs.
The transportation report from the legislative auditor reminds us there are meaningful issues candidates can and should run on. Advocating for things that will truly make our state better is not a bad place to start.