When a recent report said that Louisiana highways rank 40th in the nation, some of the reaction was predictable.
The review, which was done by the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, said Louisiana is one of just six states that account for nearly half of the potholed, urban interstate mileage in the U.S.
Only two states were rated worse for urban interstate pavements.
One is California, which has a population of about 38 million. The other is Hawaii, which is such a destination site that no one much cares what the roads are like.
Yet, despite gains in recent years — $6.4 billion on improvements since 2008 by state estimates — there is a growing sense that road and bridge conditions are a major problem and that little is likely to start changing before January 2016, when a new governor takes office. A state feasibility study says tolls can help offset costs to finish Interstate 49 South between New Orleans and Lafayette.
But residents here are notorious about demanding improvements without wanting to pay for them, which means any road plan that relies on tolls or tax hikes is wobbly from the start.
And finishing I-49 South, like lots of grandiose ideas that get kicked around, has been a topic of conversation for a few decades.
State officials disclosed nine months ago that they had found a way to trim cost estimates in half — from about $6.5 billion to about $3 billion.
However, the state already has a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs that does not even include I-49 South.
The report singled out the state’s drop in spending for highway maintenance, and reversing that trend is a top goal for Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton.
Adley, who is on a special panel studying state highway aid, contends that the state needs to spend at least $70 million per year for highway and bridge upkeep compared with the $27 million annually spent now.
Anyone who has driven across the western end of the Atchafalaya Basin recently knows what a jarring ride that is and exactly what it means when road conditions take such a nosedive that it is hard to steer.
Yet, Adley and others know that even if more money is spent on highway and bridge maintenance, that is just the edge of the problem.
Highway backers thought they had made huge inroads in the big picture when the Legislature in 2008 passed a law that would redirect new and used car revenue from the state general revenue fund, where it is used for a wide range of services, to transportation only.
That could be $400 million per year, which would make a difference.
But road advocates then learned that the transfer would take place only if the state met certain budget thresholds — 2020 at the earliest.
Now, Adley and others say the Legislature is unlikely to even allow that, especially amid recurring budget problems.
The state faces a $1.2 billion shortfall for the financial year that begins July 1.
All this takes places on the eve of annual hearings — called the road show — when officials of the state Department of Transportation and Development and lawmakers travel around the state listening to local officials spelling out their wish lists.
All the comments will be dutifully collected and stored away somewhere.
Much of the testimony will note that the state has money problems but that crying needs exist for this local highway or this crumbling bridge — another source of national attention.
The highway study committee — it is called the Transportation Funding Task Force — will hold more hearings before filing a report to the Legislature by Jan. 15.
Gov. Bobby Jindal remains adamantly opposed to any tax hikes, whether for highways or anything else.
And Jindal’s successor?
How to fix state road woes are standard fare in campaigns for governor, and next year’s contest will likely focus more attention than usual on the issue.
It also means that any bid to launch sweeping improvements in state highways and bridges is at least 16 months away.
And even that would only start a lengthy debate over what, where and how.
Will Sentell covers highway issues for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.