Political Horizons: When it comes to roads, a map is lacking _lowres

Senator Dale M. Erdey

Dale Erdey showed up last week at one of those getting-to-know-you coffees sponsored by a candidate running for governor.

As a state senator representing one of Louisiana’s fastest-growing areas, he’s been “stalking” (his joke) the candidates to see what they have to say about transportation infrastructure.

“What I see is that they have no definitive plan to put into action once they hit the ground,” said the Livingston Republican, who is a member of the Senate committee that oversees the state’s clogged highways and one of the few regularly asking about transportation infrastructure.

All four candidates talk — to varying degrees of specificity — about ideas such as “reforming” the capital outlay process (currently it’s used by governors to reward favored legislators) and diverting some of that money to highways; keeping the trust fund from being spent on anything but concrete and asphalt; and allowing local government more autonomy to raise taxes for local roadwork.

But where the rubber meets the road — how the state will raise enough money to tackle a $12 billion backlog of repairs and upgrades — well, at least to Erdey’s mind, the answers get more hazy. The four major candidates — Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, of Breaux Bridge, Lt. Gov Jay Dardenne, of Baton Rouge, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Metairie, all Republicans; and the leader of the Louisiana House Democratic Caucus, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite — talk mostly about the need for more talk about how the state can raise significant revenues fast.

Louisiana’s political leaders aren’t the only ones ducking the issue of paying for fixing crumbling infrastructure.

With the alacrity of a seventh-grader facing a homework assignment, Congress on Thursday put off until Oct. 29 dealing with the federal contribution to state highway projects by voting to pour $8 billion into the nearly bankrupt fund — it was going to shut down Friday. They then left for a holiday.

Federal dollars account for up to 90 percent — depending on the project — of the funding for many of the highway and bridge construction in Louisiana. Congress’ decision means Louisiana can spend an additional $102 million — for a total of $612 million on those projects.

Erdey joined about 25 voters sipping lattes and eating chocolate chip cookies in Central on Tuesday while Angelle turned on the charm.

But most of the questions were about education — how to improve the outcomes of public school students while ensuring that universities, colleges and technical schools get the money they need.

None were about traffic, which is interesting because Central — the state’s 13th largest city — is difficult to get to. Driving the 14 miles from the State Capitol up once-rural roads with plenty of potholes has a “pack-a-ham-biscuit-for-the-trip” quality to it.

For Erdey, improving roads and bridges is more than a quality-of-life issue — it’s a driver for economic development. He pressed Angelle after the coffee on how to fund highway and bridge projects.

The money the state puts up for transportation infrastructure primarily comes from a 16-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline approved in 1984 — when there was little backlog — and now with the buying power of about 7 cents a gallon.

State legislators considered adding a penny to the gasoline sales tax, but the measure died in the House.

Erdey says tolls — like those routinely used to build highways and bridges in Texas and Florida — are a possibility, as is partnering with private companies. Maybe the state could use a hotel-motel tax or tie the gasoline tax to a cost-of-living index.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but we have to have an adult conversation about investing in our roads,” Angelle said.

During the November elections, voters in Wisconsin and Maryland — with 80 percent-plus pluralities — approved constitutional amendments to protect transportation dollars from raids seeking money for general expenses. On the same day, Texas voters, by a similar margin, approved for transportation infrastructure about half the oil and gas monies that were going into that state’s rainy day fund.

Louisiana voters, on the other hand, used that same election to reject the idea of creating an infrastructure bank, from which municipal and parish governments could borrow money for local road projects. (It’s on the ballot again this fall.)

“The governor is going to have to take the lead on this, whichever direction we go. We can’t have a governor who’s going to be vetoing every tax increase or toll,” Erdey said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com, and he is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.