Current, former DOTD chiefs disagree on La. highway conditions _lowres

Sheri H. LeBas, La. Department of Transportation and Development Secretary

Former state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Kam Movassaghi and current DOTD chief Sherri LeBas bluntly disagreed Tuesday on state road and bridge conditions and how to fix them.

Movassaghi said state highways are in a “deplorable state,” that political interference from the Governor’s Office is part of the problem and that politics sometimes “get in the way of doing the right thing.”

He also called for an 8 percent sales tax on all fuels to replace Louisiana’s 16-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax, which he said would raise an additional $210 million per year and cost motorists an extra $3.65 per month.

“We all know the current revenue is not sufficient,” said Movassaghi, who served as DOTD secretary from 1998 to 2004 under former Gov. Mike Foster.

LeBas, who has been DOTD secretary since 2010, disputed Movassaghi’s views on state road and bridge conditions.

She said that, since 2008, the state has spent $6.3 billion to improve transportation, “which is really an unprecedented amount.”

LeBas said the state “has made great strides” in addressing highway and bridge needs in recent years and has trimmed highway fatalities by 32 percent since 2007.

On another topic, she disagreed with Movassaghi’s proposal to try to trim any political interference in highway operations by creating a seven-member commission, which would then name a director to run DOTD and report to the panel.

Under current rules, the DOTD secretary is named by the governor and part of the governor’s cabinet.

“I believe the structure we have is not as bureaucratic as a commission structure,” LeBas said.

LeBas said later that, while she has not studied Movassaghi’s proposal to replace most of the state gas tax with a sales tax, she noted that Gov. Bobby Jindal remains opposed to any tax increase.

The issue surfaced during the second meeting of the Transportation Funding Task Force, which is studying ways to boost aid for roads and bridges amid a backlog of about $12 billion.

Movassaghi told the task force that part of Louisiana’s transportation problems stem from DOTD management troubles, including heavy turnover in the top job — seven since 1990 — and political meddling. “The governor and his staff will call the shots,” he said.

LeBas countered that Louisiana’s highway priority program — how projects are ranked and get funded — carries “a lot of integrity” and includes comments from the public through annual statewide hearings on local needs.

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon in Louisiana for state and federal taxes.

That includes 16 cents for rank-and-file projects, last changed in 1984, and 4 cents for 16 projects that voters approved in 1989.

During the same meeting, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, who is running for governor, told the committee that all options should be on the table in addressing state highway needs, including tax hikes.

Edwards was the lone contender in the 2015 governor’s race who spelled out his views on state transportation issues.

State Treasurer John Kennedy, who also addressed the panel, said the state should consider using up to 60 percent of its annual capital improvement budget for highways for three years.

Kennedy said that could generate up to $240 million per year in additional highway revenue.

“It will be controversial but there is no way to fund roads without controversy,” Kennedy said.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton, a member of the task force, said Kennedy overstated the amount of questionable spending in Louisiana’s capital improvements budget, such as $400,000 renovations of Junior League offices in New Orleans.

Adley said that eliminating all such projects would only save the state $88 million.

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