By Keith Goble
state legislative editor
Staring at a backlog of transportation projects that reaches well into the billions, the Louisiana Legislature spent a lot of time this year looking into ways to help plug the gap in funding.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco weighed in with a proposal to use $450 million of the state’s budget surplus to make one-time road and bridge improvements. With little reaction from many legislators, she openly pondered boosting that amount to about $650 million.
Critics of the governor’s plan say the state needs to spend more, and to spend it each year, to make any headway in the state’s $14 billion backlog.
To make matters worse, Johnny Bradberry, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said something must be done because the state’s backlog of road needs is increasing by up to $400 million a year, reported The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge.
Options proposed in the House and Senate run the gamut for how to help eat into the funding gap. At press time, bills that drew consideration included several efforts to redirect fees and taxes from the state treasury to transportation.
One such revenue measure would divert all of the 4-percent state sales tax assessed on cars and trucks. About $360 million annually would be routed to a special highway program for non-federally funded roads.
Funds collected would be required to stay in the parish that owners reside or store their vehicle. The money would be used to finance projects the Louisiana DOTD has outlined based on needs that don’t have funding.
A similar bill would give parishes more say in how they spend the money directed to them. The only requirement would be the projects are included in the state’s priority program.
Another bill would increase state aid for roads and bridges by $621 million a year by earmarking some state sales and use tax dollars to parishes for road work. Nearly $500 million annually would be directed from the state general revenue fund to the highway improvement fund. The money that now is routed to the general fund comes from vehicle and parts sales tax revenues, mineral revenues and truck registration fees.
Another $125 million from the highway fund would be protected from diversion to other services, including retirement and other benefits to former state highway workers and traffic control assistance for the State Police.
A separate legislative effort would supply funds to complete the state’s portion of Interstate 49. It would use $15 million annually from unclaimed property funds in the state. A one-time diversion of $30 million from the state’s general fund also would be routed to the unclaimed property fund.
All money would be split evenly to the north and south portions of I-49. Those stretches run north from Interstate 20 in Shreveport to the Arkansas line and south from Interstate 10 in Lafayette to the West Bank Expressway in New Orleans.
Another bill also is intended to route money for the completion of I-49. It would pull $250 million of the state’s budget surplus to be used for building the northern portion of I-49.
One other bill would generate revenue for road work by imposing surcharges for repeat traffic violations and drunken driving. It would route money from surcharges, assessed on a points’ basis, to pay for major construction projects throughout the state.
Dubbed the “Driver Responsibility Program,” the bill mirrors a Texas program that provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year for road work. According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, the Louisiana program would produce $24.5 million in surcharges.