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Thu April 26, 2007 - Southeast Edition
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) Aging bridges, congested highways, potholes and cracked asphalt.
Whoever is elected Louisiana’s governor this fall will inherit a $14 billion problem: a backlog of highway projects the state needs to get done, but for which there is no budget.
The projects include road widenings, needed to ease congestion; new guard rails and turning lanes, needed for safety; and pothole fixes, repavings and other basic improvements to thousands of miles of state roads.
The state has no plan to pay for these projects, a situation many believe will further hinder Louisiana’s hurricane recovery and choke economic development.
“We all know that Louisiana’s highways are not as good as we’d like them to be,” said Sen. Noble Ellington, chair of the state Senate’s transportation committee.
Ellington and Rep. Roy Quezaire, chair of the House transportation committee, are backing bills that would redirect budgeted transportation-related money now used on projects unrelated to infrastructure and roads. If passed, the plan would redirect $621 million in existing state revenue to the transportation department, which has $2.4 billion to spend this fiscal year.
Ellington and Quezaire want to create new financial support for highway spending, much of which comes from a fuel tax of 16 cents a gallon — unchanged since 1984. Inflation has sharply eroded the buying power of the tax since its implementation 23 years ago, while the cost of highway projects has spiked because of increases in concrete and steel prices.
As things stand, the state can’t keep up with its increasingly expensive road projects. Ellington said the system also is in danger of running out of matching funds for the $750 million in federal funding the state receives, including completion of Interstate 49.
“We are not anywhere near where we need to be,” said Ellington, D-Winnsboro.
The challenge is daunting: $14 billion in unfinished projects comes to nearly half of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s proposed budget this year — a budget that covers all state government expenses, not just transportation.
Said Quezaire: “$14 billion. That’s a lot of money. It’s an awesome task we have before us.”
This year, Blanco has asked the Legislature to approve an expenditure of $450 million on highway projects. They range from $299,000 for asphalt in Rapides Parish to $63 million for a Louisiana Highway 1 bridge in Lafourche Parish.
But that funding request is one-time funding, good for the next fiscal year only. It would represent roughly 3 percent of the state’s $14 billion backlog.
Projects that would not get funded include plans for highway upgrades in areas that have had heavy traffic increases since Hurricane Katrina: early phases of a long-researched “loop” around Baton Rouge, costing billions; raising and expanding the Interstate 10 twin bridges that cross Lake Pontchartrain; and four projects in St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes.
“The $450 million is great for this year,” said Jennifer Marusak, lobbyist for Driving Louisiana Forward, an association of engineering and construction companies that perform road work. “But what do we do after that?”
Marusak’s group helped create the Ellington-Quezaire plan out of concern that the clog in state funding would harm Louisiana’s economy.
“Poor roads and highways are choking off economic development and hindering our recovery” from the 2005 hurricanes, Marusak said.
Ellington and Quezaire will have trouble getting their plan through the Legislature, because taking money for transportation will mean taking money away from other state projects. Quezaire and Ellington said they have a 60 percent shot at success.
“I doubt very seriously we can get all of this on the table” this year, said Quezaire, D-Donaldsonville.
Poor road conditions affect most Louisiana voters, but none of the declared gubernatorial candidates has taken a stand on how they’d fix the funding problem. And it’s not likely to be a hot campaign topic, because it involves a complicated, obscure subject: how state lawmakers divvy up the state budget.
Said Marusak: “The public has no idea how our infrastructure is funded.”