Despite scathing criticism of Louisiana roads and bridges, questions remain on whether a special state panel studying the issue will recommend sweeping or modest highway fixes.
“People aren’t stupid; they know the roads suck,” said state Treasurer John Kennedy, who appeared last week before the Transportation Funding Task Force.
Former state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Kam Movassaghi told the panel that conditions on 62 percent of state roads are mediocre or poor, which he said is the worst among 13 Southern states.
Movassaghi said the state needs $2.7 billion just to tackle its structurally deficient bridges, ranks 44th in its rate of highway fatalities and features the highest annual auto insurance rates in the nation at $1,277.
“Louisiana’s highway network is in a deplorable state,” he told the committee.
But with two meetings done and two to go, the task force appears most focused on short-term fixes, including how to come up with at least $70 million per year for road and bridge upkeep.
Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes any tax hikes, the Jindal administration dismissed Movassaghi’s overhaul proposals and 2015 is an election year for governor and lawmakers.
Given those and other factors “the chances are we are not going to get a major, major revamping,” said Movassaghi, a member of the task force.
House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, said she remains hopeful that the Legislature next year will consider major steps to tackle the state’s $12 billion backlog of transportation projects.
“If we don’t get money, new money, into that budget, we are just having a meeting for nothing, to vent,” St. Germain said. “We have pushed the can around for way too many years.”
The next gathering, on Oct. 30, is set to include comments from officials of Louisiana State Police, which gets about $60 million per year from Louisiana’s transportation fund amid criticism that highways cannot afford such revenue diversions.
Another meeting is set for November, and the task force is supposed to file a report with the Legislature in January.
In an interview, Kennedy said the state has to first show voters that it is making road improvements a priority before officials can ask for more dollars.
“They are not willing to commit more of their money because they don’t think the money will get spent on roads, that it will go in the black hole of the general fund,” he said.
One way to do that, he said, is to revamp annual spending for capital improvements so that 60 percent — up to $720 million over three years — is spent on road and bridge needs instead of legislative pet projects, like a $140,000 state-funded fence around a New Orleans subdivision or a $400,000 renovation of the Junior League headquarters in New Orleans.
Kennedy said that type of spending represents “nice things to do but most taxpayers would not say they are priorities.”
Funding for roads and bridges has ranged from 23 percent to 35 percent of capital spending in the past five years, according to Kennedy’s office.
“If you show people you are serious about what you say, that is a start,” Kennedy said of making highway improvements a priority.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton, co-author with St. Germain of the legislative resolution that set up the task force, said Kennedy overstated the impact of removing spending for controversial projects.
“There is not some billion-dollar surplus in capital outlay you can get your hands on,” Adley told the task force, which he also sits on.
Movassaghi, who was DOTD boss from 1998 to 2004, said state highway and bridge problems stem from two issues: not enough money and flaws in DOTD’s makeup.
Sherri LeBas, the current DOTD secretary, said the state has spent more than $6 billion since 2008 on road and bridge improvements.
In a “white paper” that accompanied his testimony, Movassaghi noted those gains, including added lanes on Interstate 10 and I-12 in the Baton Rouge area.
“However, when the scope of overall needs is considered, these programs have had minimal effect,” he wrote.
Movassaghi also said the state needs a seven-member commission and an executive director that reports to the panel to lessen what he calls undue interference from the Governor’s Office and to allow DOTD chiefs enough time to carry out priorities.
The state has had seven DOTD secretaries since 1990.
“The problem is transportation cannot be fixed in one or two years,” he said in an interview. “And it requires a consistent approach, a consistent philosophy.”
Movassaghi also called for an 8 percent state sales tax on all fuels to replace its 16-cent-per-gallon current tax for rank-and-file projects, and to allow local governments to raise revenue for transportation needs.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.