People in Louisiana are upset with the condition of highways and bridges. But it’s difficult to convince people that we get what we pay for.
The buying power of the state’s gasoline tax — 20 cents a gallon for general highway and bridge construction and repair — has been declining for years. That’s not a Louisiana problem alone; the causes include an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency that has reduced the number of gallons consumed every day. Many other states, and the federal government, which also levies a gasoline tax, grapple with the same issues.
As construction costs have increased, the state’s take from its main transportation tax has declined.
That is the heart of the deliberations, yet again, of another committee appointed to look at the problem.
An eight-member task force created by the Legislature met to talk about ideas for new transportation funding.
Lawmakers charged the Transportation Funding Task Force with looking for enterprising ways to tackle an estimated $12 billion backlog in road and bridge work. The panel includes four lawmakers, Louisiana’s transportation secretary, and representatives of the construction and engineering industries. Recommendations from the task force are due Jan. 15.
The panel faces a difficult job. It is not that there are no ways to address the problem; it’s that they involve the taxpayer paying more. The politics of raising revenues is difficult.
There is no easy way out, although several easy ways out are certain to be touted in this new discussion.
At the panel’s first meeting, transportation Secretary Sheri LeBas was unreasonably optimistic — a characteristic of budget officials in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. She cited a 2008 law that was intended to steer more money into highways. It would eventually take some money from vehicle sales away from the state general fund and give the revenues to the dedicated highway trust fund, now principally funded by the gasoline tax and matching federal funds.
We agree with another member of the panel, Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, that it is unlikely that the Legislature will be able to afford such a $400 million infusion into highways, because the state budget is now so precariously balanced. The 2008 law also includes language that would abort transfers to the highway fund if there are budget problems.
And there are always budget problems.
Adley and others have suggested other short-term fixes, including funding things like State Police operations and insurance liability for highway accidents from the general fund. Unfortunately, that category of ideas relies on a state general fund that is robust enough to lose $60 million or more every year.
The budget is so tight that $6 million, much less $60 million, is a huge amount; the Jindal administration has routinely shifted around funds to balance the budget. It’s no way to run a railroad, as state Treasurer John N. Kennedy has said; it’s also no way to build highways or fix bridges.
The answer, if there is an easier one, is what other states have done: change the gasoline tax from a per-gallon charge to basically a sales tax on the value of the gas at the pump. The state’s revenue would gradually increase with gasoline prices. That, too, is politically difficult, but there seems little else that is likely to have a big impact on a get-what-you-pay-for system.