When the four announced hopefuls for the governor’s race gather for their first forum of this election year on Friday, the subject matter will be one of the hardest — transportation and infrastructure.
Everybody is in favor of better roads and bridges. But this is a hard subject because the problem with transportation is twofold, and both subjects raise political difficulties: money and planning.
The funds for roads and transit at the state level come principally from a gas tax that has not been raised for many years, although a portion of it is paying off bonds for the series of major four-laning projects called the TIME program launched under Gov. Buddy Roemer’s administration.
While the price of gasoline and other fuels fluctuates, fuel efficiency has reduced the tax take from many vehicles. Inflation has eroded the purchasing power of the gas tax, and road contract prices have gone up.
Raising the tax to deal with the impact of inflation is what a business would do with its prices, and we always hear that the government should be run like a business. However, the political will to do that has been absent from Louisiana’s classes of lawmakers.
And that’s not all: Louisiana desperately needs a more coherent and planned approach to transportation. The State Planning Office is a vestige of what was called for in the post-Katrina master planning effort, Louisiana Speaks, in 2007. Nor, despite some leadership on city planning in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is the broader goal of coordination and collaboration among differing levels of government been much advanced during the years since Gov. Bobby Jindal took office in 2008. Jindal also rejected stimulus money to begin commuter trains between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, much to the dismay of the business leadership in both cities.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Louisiana affiliate has repeatedly warned of the declining state of Louisiana’s infrastructure. While there has been some improvement in the infusion of money for repair and rebuilding of the levees in metropolitan New Orleans since the 2005 hurricanes, other categories of ASCE studies such as roads and bridges bring Louisiana very poor marks.
A special legislative committee has been puzzling over these issues this year, and predictably has come to little consensus, because simply raising the gas tax is seen as politically hard, even when prices are down below $2 a gallon. Some states changed their gas tax rates from cents per gallon to a percentage of value; that approach might have merit, but it does not change the fact that gasoline prices vary so much year to year.
To the extent there are other ideas, they are dodges. Taking some State Police funding out of the transportation trust fund, as some legislators suggest, would simply add millions to the obligations of the general fund — and the general fund is so badly stressed in Jindal’s terms that finding even a few million here or there is a crisis.
In no realm of government is it more true that you get what you pay for on roads and bridges and transit.
Are we going to see leadership out of the gubernatorial candidates? We hope so. But it’s going to require that they bring specifics to the table that add up to solutions, not platitudes.