Bridge traffic

In ordinary circumstances, Louisiana ought to be spending a lot of its money on maintenance and repairs of its highways, bridges and other infrastructure. But that is now the priority plan for the state highway department out of necessity, not choice.

The head of the state Department of Transportation and Development said the focus there will be on preserving roads and bridges rather than building new ones.

We don't argue the need for regular upkeep, but patches don't necessarily do enough.

Growth has staggered the transportation systems in Baton Rouge, in particular, but there are problems everywhere that require massive new levels of investment. On Interstate 10 alone, there are huge projects needed from a Calcasieu River bridge in Lake Charles to a Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge to interchanges for a new airport expansion in New Orleans. Interstate 49 between Lafayette and New Orleans is another project calling for billions, not merely hundreds of millions.

As DOTD chief Shawn Wilson told a gathering of infrastructure company executives the other day, there just isn't the money to do all these things.

"The cliff is here," he told a conference hosted by the American Council of Engineering Companies of Louisiana.

Earlier this year, a Wilson-backed bid to increase the state gas tax by 17 cents per gallon and raise about $500 million per year for roads and bridges died in the Legislature without a floor vote in either chamber.

Nobody likes to pay higher taxes, but the mainstay of transportation funding is a gasoline tax that hasn't been raised in Louisiana for decades. We supported Wilson's efforts, but the politics of "no" aren't susceptible to reason.

Louisiana has always done well by having matching funding on hand to snag federal dollars that were unused in the rest of the nation at the end of a fiscal year. Now, the state is facing a crunch in just matching the main federal grants that pay for roads and bridges.

How are we to attract new jobs and investment if we have these kinds of congestion problems, with no relief in sight? Wilson said a recent D-plus ranking by a national group for state transportation conditions is deserved.

Putting off upgrades also carries a price tag, he said. "The longer it takes me to get it out the door the more expensive it is going to be," Wilson said of projects.

There are hidden costs every day for motorists. The lack of new dollars also ensures prolonged traffic problems and higher vehicle maintenance costs. "And the citizens are going to say, unfortunately, it is DOTD's fault," Wilson said.

The 2017 Legislature failed to act. Because of a combination of constitutional rules and pernicious politics, the chances of a gasoline tax increase passing are probably put off to 2021.

"The issue isn't going away," Wilson said. "The challenges, the pavement conditions, it is not going to get better. As it worsens, the outcry and the plea for funding will be much louder."

Until then, patching and making-do is the best we can achieve.

Flap over federal grant latest in tense city-state relationship on I-49 project in Lafayette