Louisiana could begin losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding thanks to the inadequate financial commitment the state has made toward maintaining and improving its roads and bridges and meeting its other transportation needs.

That’s the message the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Shawn Wilson, delivered last week at a gathering of the Baton Rouge Press Club.  Wilson recently co-chaired a task force appointed by Gov. John Bel Edwards to come up with a plan for the state to plow an additional $700 million into improving its roads and bridges and highways and byways.  The task force is of the opinion that the Legislature should raise the state gasoline tax by 23 cents per gallon.  That would be 23 cents on top of the 20 cents per gallon Louisiana motorists already pay.

According to Wilson, the Feds will hold back $150 million from the state next year if Louisiana doesn’t put more skin in the game, so to speak.  The financial hit will only get worse thereafter.  The following year, according to Wilson, Louisiana would lose $300 million in federal highway money, assuming the state doesn’t find a way to put more money into its road program.

Louisiana currently pulls down $600 million to $700 million each year in federal highway money.

A quick trip to Texas — even Mississippi for heaven’s sake — reveals Louisiana hasn’t done a very good job on the highway front.  Even the so-called backroads in Texas are in better shape than the interstate highways in Louisiana, but hasn’t Texas always been one step ahead of us?

Back when I was in college, then-Gov. Buddy Roemer convinced Louisiana voters to approve a constitutional amendment that committed the proceeds from a 4-cent gas tax toward a new state highway program called TIMED, which is short for Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development.  Supposedly the TIMED program would spend some $4.7 billion over the next several decades to widen to four lanes more than 500 miles of state highways along 11 major corridors.  The TIMED program also included plans to widen and/or construct three new bridges including that $1 billion boondoggle of a new bridge over the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge at St. Francisville.  Don’t get me wrong.  The new bridge at St. Francisville is beautiful, and I’m confident it was properly built.  The problem with the new bridge is very few motorists use it.

Imagine if that $1 billion had been spent on the construction of a new bridge in or south of Baton Rouge where traffic congestion is the worst in the state?

As most of you are aware, the TIMED program hasn’t lived up to its billing.  Inflation and escalating construction costs have put a damper on it.  The bottom line is the 16-cent gas tax wasn’t sufficient to pay for everything Roemer had promised to do.  And the 16-cent gas tax that the TIMED program put in place almost 30 years ago will never gin up enough money for Louisiana to tackle the backlog of projects to improve the state’s roads and bridges, which now runs into the billions of dollars.

The $700 million in new state funding that Edwards wants to spend at the highway department is a drop in a bucket, but it’s a start.  However, convincing the Legislature to approve a new 23-cent gas tax won’t be easy.  More like an impossibility.

Yet, something tells me that if Edwards laid out a specific plan for how he wants to spend a tub load of money on highway projects throughout Louisiana, the voting public might be inclined to go along with it.  Therein lies the key to convincing the Legislature to support a plan to improve roads, including a plan that entails raising the gas tax.

Lawmakers will listen to their constituents, and even the most tight-fisted constituents among us might be inclined to pay a higher gas tax if they’re convinced they’ll get something out of it.  Just about everyone wants better roads, and I don’t know any sane individual who enjoys sitting in traffic.

Then again, who says we need better roads in Louisiana?  After all, we’ve got the best food and best music in the world and a professional football team that’s won only one Super Bowl in 50 years.

Sam Hanna Jr. is publisher of The Ouachita Citizen, and he serves in an editorial/management capacity with The Concordia Sentinel and The Franklin Sun. He can be reached at samhannajr@samhannajr.com