Since the 1970s, Louisiana has held to a simple rule: pick roads for repairs based on objective factors, such as wear and tear and traffic counts. While the highway priority program is a good bit more complex than that, that plan pioneered by then-state Rep. Richard Baker of Baton Rouge became a solid benchmark for decades.
This year's crop of legislators are not the first to chafe under the restrictions on their authority under the priority program. For one thing, the legislators can't add projects to the road program, only delete them.
This may not work perfectly — after all, sometimes a needed project might slip through the cracks — but it is a big barrier to powerful legislators putting their roads and bridges ahead in the queue. For genuine emergencies such as hurricane damage, alternative sources of funding are available.
That is why Gov. John Bel Edwards was right to veto a 2017 bill that would have given legislators the power to shuffle the deck of projects. The governor and the Public Affairs Research Council studied the bill by state Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, and feared that politics might weigh too heavily on road spending.
"This would inappropriately inject politics into a process that should be based on data and needs," the governor said.
It was the right call. PAR said that the good intentions in the Abramson bill — to change the reporting requirements and other policies for the Department of Transportation and Development, DOTD — could be carried out by executive order in the meantime, before the Legislature meets again.
We think that is a good compromise. And we commend the governor, who is closely allied with senators who backed the changes to the bill that provoked this veto, but did the right thing anyway.
The Abramson bill was touted as a way to help restore voter confidence in DOTD. As with any large agency, the department's policies and procedures might need tweaking. But the problems with public confidence in DOTD largely stem from the Legislature and governors, who for decades have failed to keep the gasoline tax — the main DOTD funding source — up with the rate of inflation.
Any agency that doesn't have the money to do what is needed will not be popular.
Road funding has shrunk in buying power for 28 years. Legislators throw up a smokescreen of "confidence," but the word that is important here is "courage." They don't have the courage to pay the bills, because raising taxes is unpopular.
We see nothing worse for public confidence in transportation than allowing powerful legislators to juggle the shrinking list of priority projects to fit their own political purposes.