The false choices about transportation policy in Louisiana offered by some only perpetuates inefficient spending when it comes to the state’s roads.
Recently, the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, an interest group composed mainly of former transportation policymakers and entities that would profit from increased spending on roads, lamented the condition of Louisiana’s roads and offered as the solution an increase in the state’s retail gasoline tax by 10 cents a gallon. The organization argued that the increased cost at the pump would be made up several times over by a decrease in vehicle maintenance costs.
In other words, the only two options are to make citizens pay more now to prevent paying even more later. But the problem, at least recently, never has been about a lack of money available but about setting priorities for transportation money and spending it well.
Seven years ago, Louisiana was one of the highest per capita spenders among the states and District of Columbia on roads, ranking 13th overall. And this was at the end of a three-decade period when its population grew, on average, only a quarter percentage point a year. Even as by 2013 this spending had slid down to 36th, only in these few years did the state begin to see substantially more economic development and higher population growth that might justify large-scale spending increases on roads.
Historic underspending until the last three decades plagued efforts to improve the condition of the state’s roads. In 2008, about five-eighths of mileage was considered substandard. Despite recent relatively higher spending, the state still has suffered an estimated $12 billion in backlog for road needs.
Partly, this shortage was because of diversion of tax receipts intended for roads into other uses, such as for the State Police. This year, the Legislature produced a law to minimize this in the future and made other changes this spring to funnel more existing revenues to roads.
Yet, this situation also came about from policymakers preferring new construction over maintenance. At the beginning of this decade, Louisiana ranked 34th in proportion of expenditures of roads funds to maintenance, spending almost five-eighths of its dollars on new construction. Many states share this problem. In 2011, more was spent by the states collectively on the 1 percent of mileage that was new than on the 99 percent already in existence.
Unfortunately, Louisiana politicians always have favored shiny new roads to show off to their constituents over the basics of keeping up the old. In part, that has led to the state’s total spending on state-administered roads — including administration, law enforcement and debt — to rank 11th per capita in 2012. If done right, spending at that level should have eaten significantly into the backlog.
Despite what the past policy-makers who built this system and potential profiteers from a tax increase argue, it’s not that Louisiana taxes insufficiently for this purpose but that it deploys funding for roads inefficiently. It also has shunned innovative revenue-raising approaches such as toll roads and public-private partnerships.
The transportation group does make a good suggestion, adopted by the four gubernatorial candidates, to allow empowering of local governments to tax retail gasoline for use on their roads. This would address Louisiana’s over-reliance on the state providing roads — as of 2013, ranked 11th in mileage overseen — adding to costs.
Yet, cramming an unneeded tax increase down the throats of roads users when better managing of funds and priorities can alleviate road woes is an irresponsible, politics-as-usual response. Gubernatorial candidates to date wisely have shunned that option.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at LSU Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana politics. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics (www.between-lines.com) and, when the Legislature is in session, another about legislation (www.laleglog.com). He may be reached through Twitter, @jeffsadow. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.