Roads, bridges need solutions

NEW BRIDGE NEEDED — Candidates for Louisiana governor can't seem to come up with solutions to solve the state's monumental road and bridge problems, like the need for a new Interstate 10 bridge at Lake Charles.

Louisiana has monumental road and bridge problems, and two of the candidates for governor don’t really have any long-term solutions. The third major candidate didn’t respond to a number of questions asked by the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL).

The state has a $14 billion road and bridge maintenance and safety backlog. It is also estimated about $15 billion is needed for mega-projects around the state like new Interstate 10 bridges at Lake Charles and Baton Rouge.

CABL asked the candidates, “Given these issues, what approach would you take, if any, to improve Louisiana’s infrastructure?”

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, admitted there is no silver bullet to solve the state’s transportation needs. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards talked about the state’s low gasoline tax and two methods his administration used to get some highway construction done. Republican businessman Eddie Rispone didn’t submit answers to CABL’s questions.

Abraham said he would ensure Louisiana is using existing streams of revenue wisely by scrubbing the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) budget. He added that DOTD officials admit there is essentially no oversight of their budget and they use the Transportation Trust Fund as if it is self-generated revenue when those are tax funds..

That is surprising information since his party’s legislative leaders in the House have firm control over state budgets that start there. They grill secretaries of state departments and others involved in writing and administering budgets for hours on end every year.

Abraham said he would work to identify areas where public-private partnerships (P3s) can work. He added he would consider related sources of revenue such as fees on electric vehicles and vehicle registration fees and/or vehicle sales taxes. A higher gasoline tax shouldn’t be the only solution, he said.

Edwards said the state’s 16-cent gasoline tax has been that amount for 30 years and is worth about 7½ cents in today’s dollars. The state’s gasoline tax is actually 20 cents per gallon, but 4 cents — and more — of that is dedicated to paying off bonded debt for 16 major projects like four-laning U.S. 171 and U.S. 165 that were approved in 1989.

The governor said his administration used bonds to fund 10 percent of the state’s federal transportation trust fund dollars over a 12-year period to pay for projects in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier Parish.

The governor also noted that legislators passed a transportation bill at their last session using BP settlement dollars to fund $700 million in highway and bridge projects across the state. A new Cameron ferry is one of those projects. The legislation was praised by some, but others considered it to be a “political grab bag” of projects favored by state lawmakers.

Public-private partnerships are a good solution, but tolls usually have to play a part in financing projects and they are extremely unpopular. The Chamber/Southwest Louisiana appointed a task force that came up with a great P3 solution to build a new I-10 bridge here. However, after President Trump promised to build a new bridge if he is re-elected in 2020, an effort to set up a toll system collapsed.

Clearly, no one — neither gubernatorial nor legislative candidates — has a workable solution for Louisiana’s transportation needs. It’s a sad commentary on the state of our political structure that can’t seem to get its act together. Those who could solve the problems are unwilling to put their necks on the line to take the bold steps needed to do it.

CABL also asked the gubernatorial candidates if they would continue to implement the criminal justice reforms enacted by the Legislature in 2017. It comes as no surprise that Abraham and Edwards expressed completely different views.

Abraham said Edwards’ implementation of the reforms has been detrimental to public safety, a view expressed by other Louisiana Republican leaders. He said he talked with district attorneys, sheriffs and victims who are skeptical about the reforms, but district attorneys and sheriffs never liked them to begin with.

Some prison inmates who were released early did commit serious crimes. However, it’s quite a stretch for Abraham to say “there are countless cases where repeat violent offenders have been released early and committed new violent crimes, including murder and rape.”

Abraham has often said he is a true follower of President Trump, but that doesn’t square with the fact Trump supports criminal justice reform. The president even invited Edwards to the White House to discuss criminal justice reform.

Edwards said the reform package brought together a large group of people from every corner of the political spectrum, including the ACLU, Grover Norquist of No New Taxes fame and religious organizations. The governor said over the next 10 years the state is projected to save more than $260 million, and 70 percent of that will be reinvested in re-entry programs for inmates.

Thanks to CABL, we are finally getting some discussion of campaign issues that the gubernatorial candidates have pretty much avoided so far. Rispone should have participated.

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