As Louisiana struggles with TOPS funding, bills to reform program pass first hurdle in Senate committee

Advocate staff photo by CHARLES CHAMPAGNE — Incoming freshman and transfer students head to their next STRIPES activity Tuesday, August 11, 2015 on Louisiana State University’s campus.

Prohibiting LSU classes from starting before 10 a.m. would be one of the options studied to ease Baton Rouge traffic problems under legislation that won approval Tuesday in the House Transportation Committee.

The measure, Senate Concurrent Resolution 12, cleared the House panel without objection and next faces action in the full House.

It breezed through the state Senate 35-0 on April 4.

The proposal would set up a study group that includes officials of the LSU Board of Supervisors, the Louisiana Workforce Commission and the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The panel would be charged with recommending "creative and alternative options" to trim daily traffic backups that have plagued Baton Rouge for years.

One option spelled out in the proposal would be a ban on classes starting before 10 a.m. at LSU, a move aimed at reducing the number of cars and trucks headed to campus during the morning rush hour.

That provision did not spark any discussion during the brief committee review of the resolution.

Most of the comments focused on the makeup of the study panel and the need for officials of Southern University to be included, and maybe more.

Any mandate on when LSU can hold classes would have a huge impact on student schedules.

LSU has about 960 "sections" of classes that start before 10 a.m. each semester, according to Ernie Ballard, director of media relations.

A class that meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday counts as one section. So does one that meets on Tuesday and Thursday.

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who handled the resolution in committee, noted the study is the latest in a long line of efforts to find Baton Rouge traffic solutions.

Carter, vice chairman of the committee, called the LSU provision "just another creative and innovative idea" by someone trying to come up with traffic solutions.

He said he has no idea how many students, faculty and staff use the interstates in the morning and noted that lots of students live near LSU.

"So I don't know," Carter said after the meeting. "That is why they put together the study resolution, to determine if it would have an impact."

"If it does, and we could alleviate some of the problems, I am all for it."

The sponsor of the resolution, Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, could not be reached for comment.

Resolutions rarely spark controversy in the Legislature, and studies are often seen as a way to put off controversies in favor of hearings between legislative sessions.

But news of Erdey's proposal sparked criticism on social media, including complaints that delaying classes until 10 a.m. would hamper students with jobs, and that lawmakers are unwilling to come up with financial solutions to road problems.

Under the study plan, staggered work hours for major Baton Rouge employers, including state agencies, would be another option scrutinized.

Urging employers to allow employees to telecommute also would be studied as a way to improve traffic by trimming the number of motorists.

Carter sponsored a failed bill last year to boost the state gasoline tax by 17 cents per gallon.

He has pushed other traffic relief measures this year, including one to allow Baton Rouge area parishes to enact their own gasoline taxes to finance road improvements.

Another plan would limit big trucks to the right lane on Baton Rouge area interstates during peak travel times.

The Baton Rouge area gas tax plan failed in a House committee.

The big trucks measure is awaiting a vote in the full House on Wednesday.

Louisiana has a nearly $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

However, any tax hikes to address the backlog are likely years away because of legislative rules and election-year realities.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is trying to use federal bonds to spend about $600 million on three projects, including widening Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge between the Mississippi River bridge and the Interstate 10/12 split for about $350 million.

Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, a member of the committee, praised the proposal.

"We need something," White said.

The resolution would require the panel to make recommendations to legislative leaders by March 1.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.