Bid for ‘transformative’ La. transportation overhaul coming soon



A push that may produce the most sweeping changes in Louisiana’s roads and bridges in nearly 30 years gets underway Tuesday.

A transportation task force named by Gov. John Bel Edwards is set to hold its first meeting. Six months later, it is supposed to make recommendations for the 2017 Legislature.

Legislative, industry and business leaders are on the panel, which means any agreement also backed by Edwards stands a good chance of becoming reality.

Proposals to increase the state gasoline and other taxes are likely. A plan to ease congestion in some of the state’s most troubled spots, including Baton Rouge, is also expected.

If the task force reaches a consensus — no easy assignment — it could pave the way for the biggest transportation overhaul in Louisiana since the late 1980s.

“This could be transformative,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, one of the 18 members of the task force.

“I will be disappointed if it doesn’t lead to some fundamental, concrete proposals moving forward,” said Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ top lieutenant and a panel member.

“The timing is certainly right,” Dardenne said.

The last similar push took place in 1989, when voters approved funding for 16 road and bridge projects known as TIMED.

The initial price tag for the 16 projects was $1.4 billion. The latest estimate is $5.2 billion, and two of the projects are still years away from completion.

This year’s study group faces a daunting challenge.

Louisiana has a long-standing, $12.7 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, including maintenance.

It also has a $10.5 billion list of mega projects, including construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, that is part of the governor’s call for study.

Edwards has said it is “painfully obvious that something needs to be done.”

However, more money is needed to make it happen, right on the heels of $1.6 billion in tax hikes the Legislature took this year amid state budget problems.

And more money means tax increases that require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate — 70 and 26 votes, respectively.

“Item No. 1 is going to be consideration of whether there is a straight-up hike in gas taxes,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council and a member of the task force.

But Scott said the panel first needs to take a look at how the state Department of Transportation and Development is spending money now, and whether there are ways to come up with more efficient operations.

“Otherwise, it is going to be a very tough sale,” he said.

How DOTD spends its money now is one of the first items on the agenda for Tuesday’s 9 a.m. meeting, said DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, co-chair of the panel.

“We expect to kind of review what the expectations are and lay out the priorities and goals of the task force,” Wilson said. “We want to make sure we are balanced in that we address all the different modes of transportation.”

Monthly meetings are likely. Regional gatherings are also on the agenda.

Edwards is scheduled to address the group Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, the 18-member panel has a clear tilt in favor of a sweeping transportation package.

The influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which opposed some of Edwards’ tax hike proposals during two special sessions this year, is notably absent from the committee.

However, LABI President Stephen Waguespack praised the effort.

He said task force member Reldon Owens, of Alexandria, a member of Blueprint Louisiana, gives LABI a strong voice. “There is no doubt the transportation issue is an enormous issue facing the state,” Waguespack said.

“We have big challenges,” he said. “I am hopeful the task force comes up with some recommendations.”

Always congested Baton Rouge has to be one of the priorities, said Ann Trappey, an engineer, chairwoman of the board of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and a member of the task force.

“We need infrastructure more than any other region in the state,” Trappey said. “If you drive in Baton Rouge traffic, you see.”

She added, “If the Baton Rouge region isn’t successful from an economic development standpoint, neither is the rest of the state.”

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon in Louisiana for state and federal gasoline taxes.

That includes 16 cents for rank-and-file projects and 4 cents, and gradually more, to retire the TIMED project debts.

Raising the gas tax is not the only possibility.

Another plan would link the tax to inflation. A third idea would rely in part on public-private partnerships to finance mega projects.

Allowing local communities to come up with their own transportation financing plans has been mentioned.

So has a mileage tax.

The task force kicks off its work just weeks after Edwards failed to win approval for some of his tax plans that needed two-thirds majorities in the Legislature.

“We have seen that is not always easy,” Dardenne said.

“But there is an appetite in the Legislature for some longer-term solutions with infrastructure problems,” he said. “And we cannot get there with the existing pennies.”