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Congressman Garret Graves, left, answers a question from the audience as DOTD secretary Shawn Wilson, at podium watches, as they both spoke about traffic issues at the BTR Summit for Better Transportation & Roads program Tuesday April 25, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La..

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

A ritual of spring and summer is a series of meetings held in regions of the state, looking at the pressing needs for new highways and bridges, and repair of the ones we have.

And after years of neglect of transportation funding, the ritual ends with a collective throwing-up of hands among state legislators and many local leaders.

“We have a wheelbarrow full of needs and a thimble-full of money,” summed up Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The state has $691 million for transportation improvements, including vital maintenance of what we have, not just expansions of roadways, bridges, rails or other infrastructure. DOTD estimates the backlog at $13.1 billion.

As should be obvious, Louisiana needs to spend a lot more than we do today on road and bridge improvements, much less expanding transportation options and expanding ports and airports, also a province of DOTD.

Unhappily, the same Legislature which will get the summary report from the regional meetings is the same one that could not find the political courage to raise more money for transportation.

A bill to boost the state gas tax by $510 million per year — it required a 17 cent per gallon hike in the state gas tax — died in the Legislature earlier this year without a floor vote.

Indications are it will be at least 2021 before any such push is tried again because of constitutional limits on when taxes can be increased in what sessions of the Legislature. But there is also the daunting political reality: Legislators collectively closed their eyes to the needs, fearing criticism about raising taxes.

That was true even as polling indicated that Louisiana voters want better roads and are willing to pay some level of increased gasoline or other fuel taxes to pay for them.

If you chart the areas of congestion on maps of each region of the state, there are bold red lines on all sorts of major arteries from New Orleans to Shreveport, particularly at rush hours, but don’t even ask folks in Lafayette about Johnston Street.

Still, things could hardly be worse than in Baton Rouge, a crossroads for the state, where an estimated 40 percent of that multibillion-dollar backlog is located.

Even with federal matching funds, construction is financially difficult. In addition, the state must maintain older roads, and that is a state obligation, not one for the feds.

Ken Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads & Transportation Association, lacerated the Legislature for its lack of action on transportation earlier this year.

"Instead of making the tough but obvious decision to increase funding, too many politicians blamed the DOTD for the problems that underfunding has caused," Perret said.

He is absolutely right. And no new money means the state is falling behind every year.