Louisiana’s roads and bridges are beset by dwindling dollars, pressing needs and the lack of any sweeping solutions on the horizon.
Even amid a $12.3 billion backlog of transportation infrastructure projects, nearly $91 million — roughly equal to 3 cents of the state’s 20-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax — is set to be diverted to the State Police and other services.
“We are spending it on everything but highways,” Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton, said of the gasoline tax revenue.
Officials at the state Department of Transportation and Development are scrambling to avoid the loss of federal dollars because of the state’s revenue problems.
That means even some modest highway improvements that would have been easily done in the past, like upgrading a 4-mile stretch of U.S. 90 near Crowley, will languish.
“It means you are going to be building a lot less, and you are going to be looking for local funding on a lot of other projects that you don’t have funding for,” said Derrell Cohoon, who represents the Louisiana Association of General Contractors and is a veteran of 44 years at the State Capitol.
Proposals like a new bridge across the Mississippi River near Baton Rouge, which could cost up to $1 billion, appear even more remote.
Louisiana is one of just six states that account for nearly half of the potholed urban interstate mileage in the U.S., according to a report last year by the Reason Foundation.
“Our roads suck,” state Treasurer John Kennedy said. “They are axle-breaking insults.”
DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas disagrees. “The interstates are in the best condition they’ve been in for the last 20 years,” she said.
The condition of Louisiana’s roads and bridges was on the agenda last week as the state House Appropriations Committee reviewed DOTD’s proposed $575 million budget.
Touching on a volatile issue, a House budget analyst said that, since 2005, $418 million has been diverted from the state’s chief transportation fund to the State Police.
Adley and other critics say the diversion — blessed by Gov. Bobby Jindal — is outrageous at a time when DOTD officials are scrambling for dollars.
Adley said he plans to tackle the issue on two fronts when the 2015 Legislature opens on April 13.
Under one bill, he said, the state would impose a $20 million cap on money that could be moved from the Transportation Trust Fund — the key source of road and bridge dollars — to the State Police.
Jindal’s proposed budget would reroute $72 million from transportation coffers to the State Police for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
A second Adley proposal, which is a constitutional amendment, would ban the transfers entirely.
Any money-related push is complicated by the fact that the state faces a $1.6 billion shortfall to keep spending at current levels.
Asked about the diversions, LeBas, who is Jindal’s top transportation lieutenant, said the administration has to balance the needs of all state services.
She said the work of the State Police contributed to a 30 percent drop in highway fatalities since 2007 — another DOTD priority.
Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon in Louisiana in state and federal taxes.
That includes 16 cents for rank-and-file state projects and 4 cents for 16 special projects, known as TIMED, that voters approved in 1989.
The 16 cents portion of the gas tax was last changed in 1984, but inflation means that amount has the buying power of about 7 cents today, according to figures compiled by DOTD.
In addition, the 4 cents devoted to paying the debt for the 16 TIMED projects is inadequate. That means the state is having to dip into the revenue for rank-and-file projects to help pay for TIMED, and it will need to do so for years to come.
This year, that diversion totals $19 million, or just over half a cent of the gasoline tax, on top of the $72 million that would go to the State Police.
Despite the problems, LeBas said there have been transportation gains since 2008, when Jindal took office. She said the state has spent $6.7 billion on projects during that time.
In the Baton Rouge area, the list includes $86 million to widen Interstate 10 from the I-10/12 split to Siegen Lane and $60 million to widen I-10 from Siegen to Highland Road.
Another $42 million was spent to widen I-10 from Veterans Boulevard to Clearview Parkway in the New Orleans area.
The Huey P. Long Bridge near New Orleans was replaced for $1.2 billion through TIMED.
But future funding for major projects is plagued by question marks.
Ken Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, said his group is drawing up proposals for review by the 2015 candidates for governor, including plans that would boost state aid for roads and bridges.
Kennedy wants to use up to 70 percent of annual capital spending, about $210 million, for roads and bridges.
Under a 2008 state law, transportation is in line for about $400 million per year in new revenue from the motor vehicle sales tax by 2019.
However, there is disagreement on whether that will happen because of political and financial hurdles.
Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary of DOTD, said the agency plans to use $500 million of that money per year to upgrade bridges, a fivefold increase from current spending.
Louisiana is one of just nine states where the list of structurally deficient bridges rose from 2007 to 2013.
Adley said he gets calls regularly about bridge problems, including complaints about problems getting children to schools.
“The school bus can’t cross the bridge,” he said.