Huge hurdles are looming even before a special committee next week starts trying to come up with answers to Louisiana’s highway problems.
The special panel, which is called the Transportation Funding Task Force, is set to hold its first meeting in Baton Rouge at 10 a.m. on Sept. 10.
The committee includes a wide range of key players — House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part; Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton; House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles; and Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.
Sherri LeBas, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, is on the task force. So is former DOTD Secretary Kam Movassaghi, who ran the agency from 1998 to 2004.
But for the past five years, influential panels tackling state road and bridge needs have wound up producing next to nothing.
In 2009, four powerful legislative committees held numerous meetings to come up with solutions to Louisiana’s then-$12.5 billion backlog of projects.
Then state Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, said the state needed at least $750 million annually in additional road and bridge money to address the problem.
“We have to be man enough and woman enough to face these issues,” Downs said at the time.
The result? Nothing but a mostly ignored legislative resolution that spelled out 11 options for generating more road revenue.
Downs said any major push would have to wait until 2011, when he unveiled a $3 billion package at the Press Club of Baton Rouge backed by highway contractors, consulting engineers and material suppliers.
The whole thing was dead a few hours later.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, in a private meeting at the Governor’s Mansion, told Downs and others that there was no way he would back the $3 billion package.
That was that, no serious highway overhaul proposal has surfaced since and Downs has left the Legislature.
Despite the lack of any long-term answers, LeBas and others note that road and bridge improvements have gone on, including $540 million in East Baton Rouge Parish alone since 2008.
That includes the widening of Interstate 10 between the I-10/12 split and Highland Road and the widening of I-12 from O’Neal Lane to Juban Road and beyond.
Most of the money came from state surplus dollars spawned by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and federal stimulus dollars.
However, congestion remains a daily source of anger in Baton Rouge, including on weekends.
Massive backups on and near the I-10 Mississippi River bridge — about 102,000 motorists use it daily — spark endless complaints and criticism.
St. Germain says virtually every member of the Legislature has projects they cannot get finished.
Adley says it is outrageous for $60 million per year to be diverted from Louisiana’s transportation fund to help finance State Police.
Yet another obstacle to any sweeping changes stemming from the task force is the fact that 2015 is an election year.
Jindal opposes any tax or fee hikes.
That will not change in his final year of two terms, especially amid signs that he may seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. The governor may be a lame duck, but his anti-tax-hike stance, and the Legislature’s reluctance to go it alone, mean that any new highway aid that emerges from the task force is likely to be modest.
Both leaders of the highway study are nearing the end of their House and Senate terms, and likely their time in the Legislature.
St. Germain and Adley are both term-limited in 2016, which may give them the freedom to push for plans they might otherwise shy away from.
Whether they can convince their colleagues to go along is another matter.
Will Sentell covers state transportation issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.