DOTD chief: Revenue only way to tackle $14.3B project backlog

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Work on the Wemple Road widening project. (Amanda Simmons/Press-Tribune)

By John Dupont, Livingston Parish News

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana needs more money for road repairs statewide, but the chief official state transportation does not see additional funds on the horizon.

The state may have missed the best opportunity for a boost in road repairs in 2017, Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson told the Press Club of Baton Rouge at its weekly luncheon March 18.

The House of Representatives during the 2017 legislative session refused to vote on a proposed 17-cent gas tax, which would have been the first increase levied since 1987.

“That was the golden opportunity,” Wilson said.

Discussion of a gasoline tax during an election year is next to impossible, he said.

“We do have some reality checks that are essential and this is an election year, the concepts that might be proposed need to fit a good sustainable policy,” Wilson said. “We have other states that have done this, but we’re in a different position than they are.”

Alabama and Arkansas approved gasoline taxes last year, but both states did it at the start of an administration. Louisiana lawmakers will need to take a more comprehensive approach if or when they reintroduce a fuel tax proposal.

“There’s always going to be a discussion, but it’s going to have to be meaningful and have substance,” Wilson said.

The lack of additional revenue will force Louisiana to seek other methods to close in the gap between the backlog of road projects and deterioration of the highways.

The state looks to address a backlog of projects that has swelled to $14.3 billion, an increase from $13.1 billion in 2017, Wilson said.

“This means that in spite of spending billions on construction, we’re not able to keep up with the deterioration of our highway system,” he said. “There’s never going to be perpetual infrastructure, so we have to repair with concentration on deterioration.”

The DOTD operates on a $2 billion annual budget, but half the funding comes from the federal government. One-quarter of the money goes to debt service and another 25 percent goes to operations and maintenance.

Another $788 million goes toward preservation of the current roadways.

“That simply means we’re taking care of what we’ve already built,” Wilson said.

The funds do not go far in a state with 16,000 miles of road – the 10th largest transportation system in the nation.

The money must also cover 12,000 bridges across Louisiana, many of which cannot accommodate the weight for which they were designed.

The lack of funds may bring more focus on public-private partnerships, Wilson said.

The public-private partnerships have played a role in the discussion on a new Mississippi River bridge, which could alleviate traffic tie-ups that span for miles.

Baton Rouge businessman Jim Bernard came forth with an offer for a public-private partnership last year, with the hope that a share of local, state and federal funding could bring it to fruition.

Courtesy of the Livingston Parish News.