Absolutely nobody doubts that Louisiana's crumbling roads and bridges are a huge aggravation, a major drag on the economy and a constant threat to life and limb.
State officials report a daily barrage of complaints, particularly around Baton Rouge, but nobody wants to cough up the money for a fix.
That, at least, is the excuse legislators give for their continued refusal to address the disastrous disintegration of Louisiana's infrastructure. In killing a bill to raise gasoline taxes for repairs and construction last year, they said they were just doing what their constituents wanted.
If that is true, the public is a two-faced beast. While most everyone purportedly urged elected officials to oppose a gasoline tax, a majority of respondents told public opinion pollsters they were in favor of one.
It is tough to decide whom to believe, but pollsters have no obvious reason to falsify data, while politicians tend to be at their most craven and mealy-mouthed when tax hikes are mooted.
Besides, taxpayers, except the ones who own car repair shops, would have to be pretty dumb and shortsighted to favor leaving the roads in the current bone-rattling condition. Nobody likes paying, but it helps if the cause is as worthy as this one.
Sure, taxpayers everywhere want Champagne for the price of a beer, and believe they might get it if only politicians would stop wasting or stealing their money. That proposition, though commanding particular credence in Louisiana, can never be tested, for fraud and incompetence are here to stay.
Even if they were magically eliminated, however, Louisiana would likely never achieve a safe and efficient road network. Without more money, it seems impossible.
Louisiana's roadwork backlog currently stands at $13 billion for run-of-the-mill construction and maintenance, plus $19 billion for such major projects as a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.
House Transportation Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, says our transportation network is such a mess that “We don't have a choice. We have to fix it.” Liz Smith, vice president of the Baton Rouge Chamber, says, “We can't afford to wait.”
Just watch. We currently pay 38.2 cents in gasoline taxes, with 18.2 for the feds and 20 for the state, and nothing more than a token adjustment is likely to be approved in the upcoming special session, when legislative minds will be focused on plugging a $1 billion-plus hole in the operating budget. Legislators practically fell over one another last year in the rush to abandon a bill that would have raised the gasoline tax by 17 cents a gallon to produce an additional $510 million a year, and cause no more than mild inconvenience in all save the humblest households.
Gasoline taxes haven't risen since 1989, but the experience still rankles in many memories.
Voters back then approved a 4-cent gasoline tax hike to produce $1.4 billion for 16 special road and bridge projects. It may be that government projections of construction costs occasionally prove accurate, but that wasn't the case here; the price ballooned to more than $5 billion.
The state was obliged to make up the difference by raiding the Transportation Trust Fund, the repository for gasoline tax revenues supposedly earmarked for regular highway work. Still, even at this late stage two of the projects are years from completion — a road running from Interstate 12 to Bush in St. Tammany Parish, and a new Florida Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal in New Orleans.
Further stoking taxpayers’ doubts about the state's fiduciary bona fides, it turned out that State Police had been allowed to razoo $679 million from the Transportation Trust fund from 1991 to 2015 to pay for traffic control, while state bureaucrats had drawn salaries from it.
Voters last year approved a constitutional amendment requiring revenues from future gasoline taxes to be placed in a subfund that can be used only to fund highway and bridge construction and maintenance. This, of course, was a sham, since the money in the main fund can still be diverted from its advertised purpose, while it may be a long time before there is enough in the subfund to handle the first pothole.