Rep. Graves calls for state to direct more gas tax revenues to Baton Rouge-area highway projects _lowres

Garret Graves

U.S. Congressman Garret Graves said Thursday a highway priority plan for the five-parish Baton Rouge area he is developing with local leaders would rely on “true metrics,” not politics, to build a consensus for the plan’s spending priorities.

But Graves, a Republican from Baton Rouge, also made an inherently political argument for the plan’s funding.

He told an Ascension Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience in Gonzales that with Baton Rouge-area traffic ranked worst in the nation and with years of insufficient road funding, now is the time for the capital city get its fair share in state road dollars.

Graves called on the state Legislature to rededicate the 4 cents that Baton Rouge-area drivers now pay in state gasoline taxes to the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development program toward his plan.

Graves claims TIMED contains no projects for the Baton Rouge area even though Baton Rouge drivers have fulfilled their commitment to the program.

He opposes coming plans to extend the tax another 35 years to cover long-term debts for projects that took longer and were more expensive than envisioned.

“I got to tell you something. We’ve been very generous to those people around the state of Louisiana whose projects we have been paying for that (we) haven’t benefited from. We have been very generous for 25 to 30 years by paying that extra 4 cents per gallon for their projects,” said Graves, who represents Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District.

The Legislature created the TIMED program in 1989 and set out 16 regional projects that voters agreed to fund with a 4-cent gasoline tax.

TIMED was supposed to be a pay-as-you-go road widening and bridge building plan, but the Department of Transportation and Development began issuing bonds in 2002 to speed up the then-stalled program. It was supposed to cost $1.4 billion but is expected to be closer to $5.2 billion at completion in 2025.

DOTD also has had to tap part of Louisiana’s remaining 16 cents in gasoline taxes for roads to help cover debt costs, agency officials said last summer.

While Graves signaled the significance of widening La. 30, Airline Highway and changing the Washington Street exit in Baton Rouge so it no longer narrows Interstate 10 to one lane, he said he wants the road plan to be decided on measures like how much time in traffic can be saved per road dollar spent.

He said later he is trying to get local leaders to agree to use objective metrics to rank projects, though the plan also could have minimum funding for each area.

“The reason we have allowed ourselves to get to the worst traffic in nation is because of the lack of consensus from this region,” Graves told chamber members.

Despite Graves’ claims, TIMED did pay for the $400 million John James Audubon Bridge in St. Francisville, which is in the Baton Rouge metropolitan statistical area. Graves criticized that bridge as a misplaced priority because of low use, repeating the common lament that drivers could have “a picnic” on it.

Two New Orleans-area projects are unfinished under TIMED: a new $200 million state highway connecting Interstate 12 to Bush in St. Tammany Parish and the $350 million Florida Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal in New Orleans.

In a later interview, Graves said if the 4 cents were rededicated, other parts of the state would have to figure out how to pay for the debts and the New Orleans projects with the remaining revenue from the 4-cent tax.

“I don’t think we should keep spending good money after bad just because someone cut a political deal that we should fund those projects,” Graves said.