Every time a new task force is created to look at one of the chronic issues Louisiana faces you can almost hear the groans. Here we go again. Yet another task force. Haven’t we studied that issue to death?
When it comes to transportation and infrastructure, the answer is certainly “yes,” but this time there appears to be an important difference with a new task force on the subject that just held its first meeting.
Certainly, we know the problems. The state has a maintenance backlog of more than $12 billion, there are huge congestion issues in places like Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, both Shreveport and Acadiana are pushing projects involving 1-49, we have thousands of structurally deficient bridges and roads, and the condition of many of our highways creates safety issues and leads to expensive repair bills for many of our motorists.
When you add all of that up and consider the additional needs involving ports, rails and aviation, Louisiana has an infrastructure problem of more than $50 billion. That is a staggering amount of money. All that said, though, the state does have a plan to address it – nothing that will be a magic fix in the short term, but one that looks to solve those problems over the next 30 years.
Doing so will require money, of course, and the state’s new transportation plan hammered out by a special committee over the last year or so, spells out a list of priority projects across the state if funds become available. That’s the key phrase: “if funds become available.”
And that, in fact, is the charge of this new infrastructure task force. It’s not studying the problem and it’s not trying to figure out what needs to be done or what the priorities should be – all of that has happened. It’s working on developing a plan to present to the governor, Legislature and public to begin to get those projects funded.
Initial steps have been taken to make sure that our gasoline taxes are being spent on roads and infrastructure and not governmental bureaucracies. That’s a good first step that citizens had every right to demand.
But that doesn’t even begin to seriously address the problem and there can be little doubt in anyone’s mind that to make a significant improvement in our transportation system Louisiana will need additional revenues. The state’s 20-cent gasoline tax is 11 cents below the national average. Its buying power over the years has been significantly diminished by inflation. A 10-cent increase, as some have discussed, could raise close to $300 million in new revenues. Whether that’s the magic number that citizens would accept is debatable, but an increase in gasoline taxes at some level has to be part of the equation.
Beyond that, there has also been talk of allowing local governments the flexibility to raise their own local taxes, with voter approval, to further leverage those state dollars to fund specifically agreed upon local projects. In some cases these local revenues could also be mixed with appropriate tolling.
All of these approaches are difficult to undertake, but it should also be pointed out that the cost of bad roads is a hidden cost that impacts every driver in Louisiana. Our infrastructure issues are such that major solutions won’t come over night. But further delays on tackling the problems won’t make it any better or cost any less.
That means we need to get started now. One can only hope that this new task force will be the catalyst we need to make that happen. Louisiana has waited long enough.