Louisiana Lawmakers Approve Millions for Road, Bridge Projects

March 17, 2008

Louisiana Lawmakers have approved sweeping interstate expansions and the repaving of miles of highways as part of their plans to pour more than half of a billion-dollar state surplus into transportation projects.

During the special session that ended March 14, they also signed off on a plan to boost annual transportation funding, hoping to ease a $14-billion backlog of road and bridge projects.

“There’s going to be a lot of orange barrels and cones going out,” state Transportation Secretary William Ankner said in describing the impending road work.

The backlog of needs is growing, as road funding sources, like Louisiana’s gasoline tax, stay flat against inflation, and construction costs rise in the wake of the 2005 hurricanes, which created even more building needs.

With a one-time pool of cash available, Gov. Bobby Jindal, who gave the state a failing grade for its roads, called the special session. He asked lawmakers to pump much of the money into road, bridge and port repairs and expansions. Legislators, who’ve long complained about the quality of the state’s roads and traffic, were eager to oblige.

The new dollars – $396 million for road and bridge work alone – come on top a $600 million infusion of one-time cash for transportation projects approved by lawmakers and then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco last year. They’re expected to be part of an explosion of road projects motorists will see in the coming months and years.

“Go back to your districts and ask people what the number one need is that affects everyone: It’s infrastructure,” said Sen. Mike Michot, R-Lafayette, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, as he asked lawmakers to back the surplus spending plan.

Besides the one-time cash, lawmakers dedicated a new stream of funds to road repairs, ports and transportation projects. The bill will redirect the state sales tax on vehicles to road and bridge construction and port improvements, steering it from the general fund where it pays for regular state expenses.

That plan will be phased in over seven years, with $42 million redirected to transportation in the fiscal year beginning July 1. By full phase-in, in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2014, an estimated $350 million-plus more each year will be spent on road repairs and transportation projects.

“This to me is just common sense that we dedicate our transportation tax dollars to transportation projects,” Jindal said.

During debate, few lawmakers argued about taking funds away from roads; instead, arguments hinged on which roads should be repaved or expanded first.

The state is responsible for 16,000 miles of roads, including about 6,000 miles of rural roads that don’t receive federal funds for repairs and maintenance.

The state plan calls for $220 million in new roads and expansions of interstates and highways to account for traffic increases – so-called “capacity projects.” The largest price tag for a project involves the $100-million widening of Interstate 12 from Baton Rouge to Walker in Livingston Parish to alleviate the daily bottleneck of commuter traffic from the suburbs to the capital city and back.

Rural lawmakers, whose districts didn’t stand to get any money for those types of traffic alleviation projects, argued more money should be directed toward repaving and maintaining existing roads to fill in potholes, repair buckled pavement and keep poorly maintained roads from returning to gravel.

“What about those little rural parishes?” asked Sen. Troy Hebert, D-Jeanerette.

Michot, who handled the surplus spending bill in the Senate, said rural residents get caught in city traffic, too, when they come to town for church or to shop.

Meanwhile, lawmakers put $77 million into port expansion projects they and Jindal said would boost economic development efforts and create hundreds of new jobs.

On the Net: Senate Bill 11 and House Bill 46 can be found at www.legis.state.la.us.

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