Gas Tax

Louisiana Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson, right, speaks in support of a gasoline tax increase bill by Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, left, on Tuesday, May 16, 2017.

AP Photo by Melinda Deslatte

While it's not the first time, Louisiana was a pretty big winner in an annual sweepstakes that most people don't know exists.

The Department of Transportation and Development recently received $60.8 million in additional federal funds for highway projects.

Each year the Federal Highway Administration allocates funds that were not used by other states or national programs. By allocating all its earlier federal funds, and having matching funds on hand from state sources, DOTD can snag "leftovers" from the FHA funding table.

By law, DOTD can only use the newly awarded additional funds on what would commonly be called "shovel-ready" projects, obligated before the federal fiscal year ended on Sept. 30. A department spokesman said it is a record for this kind of additional federal funding.

Not bad for those routinely pilloried as useless bureaucrats during this legislative session's debate over raising the gasoline tax. Lawmakers failed to act, and added insult to injury by questioning how existing funds were used.

This is a pretty good $61 million rejoinder to those criticisms, but of course that is far from the level of funding that Louisiana needs to put into its roads, bridges, rails, ports and airports.

At under $700 million in total funding for the fiscal year, and a whopping $13.1 billion in a backlog of needed projects, these new funds are welcome but are hardly the final solution to the state's traffic woes.

And the bad news: As the costs of construction and vital maintenance goes up, year by year, Louisiana's funding base for projects continually erodes.

In fiscal 2019, DOTD's chief said, the state won't have enough locally generated revenue to match its annual allocation of federal funds from FHA and other sources.

Secretary Shawn Wilson said the state is up against it, because "without a long-term, sustainable revenue source, the state may not be able to apply for redistributed funds in coming years."

This is why gasoline and fuel taxes that have not been raised in 30 years are no longer sufficient, but it is an obvious lesson that escaped the Legislature: A bill to raise gasoline taxes died in the self-righteously anti-tax House, where members routinely seek more projects for their areas. They also are good at seeking scapegoats in the bureaucracy.

Because of constitutional limitations on tax-writing sessions, the political difficulties of a two-thirds vote and particularly one in a 2019 election year, it may be at least 2021 before any gasoline tax push is tried again.

But perhaps before then, legislators will find that Louisiana isn't in the queue to get any leftover federal funds. Without action, the state quite likely won't see these kind of windfalls in future.

Our Views: A lost chance on roads, bridges will continue to slow Louisiana's growth