Talking to a room full of business people, Shawn Wilson had a simple statement: “I challenge any business to charge what you charged in 1989, and still stay in business.”
That’s what DOTD, the state Department of Transportation and Development, has been doing for years, said Wilson, a civil servant in the agency and now Gov. John Bel Edwards’ top appointee there.
His comment to a statewide economic development forum in Baton Rouge underlined the problem of road and bridge maintenance and repair, much less expanding capacity where it is needed in growing parts of the state.
He was only one of several speakers to address infrastructure at the meeting, but his position and the political challenge of raising the gasoline tax — last raised in 1989, undermined by inflation since — is perhaps the most pressing legislative issue for anyone interested in seeing Louisiana’s economy expand.
If there is not more money from the gasoline tax, how will roads and bridges get by?
Infrastructure “is fundamental to economic development,” said Tim Barfield, a business leader who previously served in the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican.
Still, opposition from anti-tax GOP legislators and pressure groups like Americans for Prosperity — they’ve never met a tax that they liked, it seems — blocked an effort to bring the gasoline tax up to its pre-inflation purchasing power.
Wilson had a good story to tell, in that DOTD has been doing some innovative financing on several key projects. A public-private partnership and new federal aid will deal with the Belle Chasse bridge and tunnel; borrowing against future federal funds will speed up major projects in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, as well as New Orleans, where there will be a better Interstate 10 connection for the new airport terminal.
With the aid of Louisiana’s delegation in Congress, DOTD has also snared money for I-10 improvements between Lafayette and the Atchafalaya Basin, as well as for Interstate 12 in St. Tammany Parish.
All these good things don’t add up to stable long-term funding that can address the thousands of bridges that need work. It’s also the state’s responsibility to maintain roads and highways built with significant levels of federal funds, so gasoline tax dollars are essential.
Further, the “and Development” part of DOTD’s title refers to its role in assisting ports and other transportation assets, including dredging the Mississippi River to ensure its competitiveness for shipping and cruise ships.
“If we don’t dredge, it will dry up,” Wilson said. Added Brandy Christian of the Port of New Orleans: “The ships are getting bigger.”
While there are interlocking transportation issues, the salient one in a state election year is the gasoline tax increase that is manifestly needed. All candidates say they’re for roads and growth and so on.
Are candidates for governor and Legislature willing to back a gasoline tax increase? If not, they are irresponsibly promising something for nothing, and we’ll be trying to do our business on 1989 dollars, shrinking all the time.