Political Horizons: No real relief on roads anytime soon _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Interstate 10 eastbound traffic hit their brakes as vehicles back up under the Pecue Lane overpass during rush hour.

The narrative by Louisiana lawmakers has been that a package of bills, now laws, provided the big money needed to start upgrading the state’s woeful roads and bridges.

Not quite.

The package didn’t actually raise any new revenue. Lawmakers just shuffled existing money around and made those dollars easier to access for transportation projects — one of these days. “The money won’t be flowing in. It’ll be more like a trickle,” said Ken Perret, head of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, a statewide group of engineers, contractors and businessmen.

Seven bills and two constitutional amendments later, it all boils down to the Transportation Trust Fund — the key pool of dollars for bridges and highways — receiving about $20 million this year. The state needs $12 billion to address projects that would, say, free up the daily gridlock on Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Ever the optimist, Robert Scott, head of the government policy research group, Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, says that at the very least, the new structure lays the groundwork for the next governor and starts the serious conversation on how to find the money necessary.

The Transportation Trust Fund gets its money from a 16-cent per gallon tax on fuel. That money is dedicated in the state constitution for use on transportation needs, including the State Police.

As lawmakers tried year after year to balance spending with dwindling revenue, Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature gave trust fund dollars to the State Police, then used the state general fund that otherwise would have gone to troopers to pay other expenses in the government’s daily operating budget.

Attempting to put the “trust” back in the trust fund, as was often said by lawmakers, one of the new laws gradually limited the amount of transportation dollars going to the State Police.

Meanwhile, the new laws also changed the source of other transportation money from motor vehicle sales taxes to mineral revenue. A few years ago, lawmakers passed a law to divert some of the sales taxes to transportation projects. But they also needed that revenue to balance the budget, and the law never produced the promised revenue for roads and bridges.

So, the plan now is to forget about vehicle sales taxes and use a portion of the mineral revenue — severance taxes, royalty income and other oil and gas-related dollars — for transportation projects. (State voters are going to have to approve this scheme.)

Basically, after the parish governments get their cut of mineral revenue, the next $850 million flows into the state general fund, which pays day-to-day operating expenses, and then the remainder goes into the Budget Stabilization Fund, better known as the rainy day fund.

Under the new scheme, that base amount for mineral revenue assigned to the state general fund increases up to $950 million, with the additional dollars, if any, going to transportation projects. Anything above that amount flows into two subfunds: The first extra $500 million goes into an account that acts like the rainy day fund. The next $500 million goes into an account for transportation projects.

But don’t expect any of that money anytime soon. Scott calculates that oil prices need to be closing in on $100 per barrel before those caps are met. (NASDAQ priced oil Friday at $52.72 per barrel.)

In the meantime, Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri LeBas said the agency is hard at work on the feasibility studies, environmental assessments, design plans and all the other stuff needed to get major projects off the ground. DOTD will be ready to roll when the money does become available, she said.

All of which brings us back to what the next governor will do. All the candidates talk about focusing on transportation issues. But they’re not specific.

The primary source of revenue for bridges and highways is that 16-cent per gallon tax on gasoline, which was passed in 1984. LeBas says her economists calculate that over the three decades since, the buying power of that tax dropped to about 7 cents. This means, Louisiana drivers now pay a little more than $100 a year to drive on the 16,000 miles of the state’s roads.

Voters repeatedly have refused to raise taxes, so big projects are not likely to get funded anytime soon.

Or as Perret said: “Traffic congestion is going to be a fact of life.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com. and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/