Funding Gap Widens in Quest to Fix La.’s Highways

February 6, 2007

The Louisiana state highway department is finding itself in an increasing money pinch as repair demands run into rapidly escalating construction costs following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The gap between construction needs and the funding for them has increased since the storms from $12 billion to $14 billion.

“No doubt about it, a lot of other states have done a better job of funding their roads,” said Jennifer Marusak, a spokeswoman for Driving Louisiana Forward, a coalition backed by highway construction companies and chambers of commerce.

The group is starting a campaign to educate the public about why the state needs to change how it funds its highways.

Companies looking for places to expand or build new plants look at Louisiana highways and are turned off, she said.

“The state has got to put a lot of effort into improving existing roads,” said F. Frank Moretti, director of the Road Information Program that recently found 22 percent of Louisiana’s roads were in poor condition and 25 percent were in mediocre condition.

Driving Louisiana Forward is putting together a multimedia campaign it hopes will spur the public and the Legislature.

“These are the guys who build the roads, so they know what the problems are,” Marusak said.

Members include the Associated General Contractors, the Concrete and Aggregate Association of Louisiana, the Louisiana Asphalt Paving Association, the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, two engineering societies and economic development arms of chambers of commerce.

Louisiana’s highway construction and repair costs have been funded since 1984 by a 16-cents-per-gallon tax on fuel sales that since 1997 has gone into the Transportation Trust Fund instead of the state general fund budget. Recently, license fees for cars and trucks have been added.

Another 4 cents is assessed for specific projects under the Transportation Infrastructure for Model for Economic Development. That money does not go into the Transportation Trust Fund for general highway use.

Because of inflation since 1984, the 16 cents now is worth about 8 cents, Marusak said.

The state treasurer office reported that fuel taxes and motor vehicle registration fees going into the Transportation Trust Fund totaled $599.7 million last year. But only a portion of the 16 cents is available for highways, said Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

Lambert said about $565 million, which includes Transportation Trust Fund money and some self-generated funds, goes to pay for the operations of DOTD, including salaries, retirement, equipment and supplies to fix roads.

Another $83 million – about 2 cents of the 16 cents collected – goes to state police and a transportation fund for parishes gets another penny for a total of $47.9 million this year, the treasurer’s office. Ports and airports also share the trust fund money.

The small amount that’s left of the main trust fund revenue is used to secure about $605 million in federal matching funds for interstate and federal highway repairs, which brings the total funds spent on federal and state roads this year to $687 million, Lambert said.

Coupled with TIMED money, $1.6 million in road projects are under way at any given time, Lambert said.

Information from: The Advertiser,

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