Crumbling and congested roads cost the average Louisiana driver hundreds of dollars a year, and there are no easy answers on how to fix them.
Calling any state’s roads “the worst” definitively is difficult, since different ranking bodies use different methodologies. But by any measure, road and bridge conditions in Louisiana rank poorly, putting them on the legislature’s radar once again this session.
A 2013 report from the Reason Foundation ranked Louisiana 41st in the country in rural interstate pavement condition (4.07 percent of mileage in poor condition, more than double the national average), 44th in rural arterial pavement condition (3.06 percent in poor condition, more than three times the national average) and 48th in urban interstate pavement condition (15.31 percent, more than three times the national average).
In the same report, Louisiana ranked 39th in deficient or obsolete bridges (27.8 percent, compared to 21.5 percent nationally). It also ranked 44th in fatality rate, which many rankings consider to have a strong connection with road conditions.
“We’re suffering right now from years of neglect,” said Ken Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association. “For many years, we’ve been underfunded for both construction and maintenance. It’s a vicious cycle. We’re falling behind every year, not because DOTD doesn’t want to do what’s right, but because we don’t have adequate resources.”
A 2010 report from The Road Information Project found that “driving on roads that are deteriorated, congested or lack some desirable safety features costs Louisiana motorists a total of $3.1 billion annually.” The problem was worst in Baton Rouge, where the average driver paid an extra $1,052 per year, and New Orleans at $1,254 per motorist.
“Our network is in a deplorable state,” said Kam Movassaghi, former Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development secretary. “We break windshields, we bust tires, we knock front ends out of alignment when we drive on bad roads.”
Just as concerning is the effect those roads could have on economic growth. Billions of dollars in new industrial projects are planned for the state, but many stakeholders worry they might be delayed, and some might fail to materialize at all, if the state’s transportation system doesn’t improve.
“It’s a critical situation,” Perret said. “We have all this new industry coming in, but if you can’t get workers to their jobs or get product out of the plants without congestion, someone’s bound to say, ‘wait a minute, there’s no sense in going there.'”
How we got here
There is only one sure way to remedy Louisiana’s infrastructure ills, most stakeholders say — more money. Unfortunately, it’s money the state does not have.
“There’s no doubt road conditions in Louisiana need improving,” said Don Redman, spokesman for AAA Louisiana. “The best way to improve them is to spend money. That’s the big issue. How are we going to raise that money?”
Louisiana ranked 42nd in per capita highway spending in 2003 and 36th in 2013. In between, the state enjoyed a brief period among the nation’s top spenders.
Spending peaked in 2009, when total highway spending in the state was nearly $3.5 billion. In 2013, that number had dropped by 40 percent. Since 2008, when Louisiana rose to 13th in the country in per capita highway spending, only Georgia has had a larger drop in spending.
There are reasons for that.
Funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and for disaster relief following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and rising energy prices had the state awash in money, and the government spent accordingly. The state’s Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development program had dedicated nearly all of its $4.6 billion budget by the end of 2009.
Once those short-term revenue boosts faded, infrastructure spending dropped. Louisiana’s yearly battle to patch holes in its budget has made it difficult to restore that level of funding.
Still, Louisiana’s roads rank far lower in condition than they do in spending (the state was 25th in spending per mile in 2012, according to the Reason Foundation). Why?
The overarching conclusion, many say, is an aging system that was left to decay for too long.
The state has a backlog of $12 billion in transportation needs. That has actually improved from a few years ago, when it was $14 billion.
Other factors include a high cost to build roads in parts of Louisiana, where water and soil construction make it difficult, and a policy of investing heavily in new construction versus maintenance.
A 2014 report, “Repair Priorities: Transportation Spending Strategies to Save Taxpayer Dollars and Improve Roads,” by Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense, criticizes states across the country for “spending more money building new roads than maintaining the ones they have — despite the fact that roads are crumbling, financial liabilities are mounting and conditions are not improving for America’s drivers.”
From 2009-11, according to the report, states spent $4 billion more building new roads that represented 1 percent of state-owned systems than they did maintaining the other 99 percent of the roads they own. Louisiana, according to the report, spent 62 percent of its roads budget on expansion and new construction, compared to 55 percent nationally.
“With every dollar spent on new construction, states add to a road system they are already failing to adequately maintain,” according to the report. The report also concludes it is far more expensive to rehabilitate a road once it has deteriorated than it costs to keep it in good condition.
“The state appears to favor building new and wider highways at the expense of repair and maintenance,” said John Olivieri, a spokesman with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
“I think it’s both,” Movassaghi said when asked if Louisiana’s infrastructure issues are more due to lack of funding or not spending money wisely enough.
Where can the state find billions of dollars to pour into its failing roads and bridges?
Several ideas have been proposed, including some that are being discussed this legislation session.
• Adjust the gas tax.
The state collects 20 cents on every gallon of gas sold. Four cents of that is dedicated to debt service from the TIMED program (though recently the cost has been closer to 5 cents).
The remaining 16 cents funds transportation infrastructure.
The 16 cent tax has been at that level since 1984. Since then, the purchasing power of that 16 cents has dropped to about 7 cents due to inflation. At the same time, better fuel efficiency technology means vehicles use less fuel.
Louisiana drivers pay 38.4 cents per gallon in federal and state gas taxes. Ten states have lower taxes. The national average is 48.9 cents per gallon.
Solutions that have been proposed include raising the state tax and indexing it to inflation, scrapping the flat tax per gallon and changing it to a percentage-based sales tax or switching to a model that taxes vehicles based on the mileage they travel.
• Save Trust Fund dollars for infrastructure projects.
Most of the state gas taxes go into the Transportation Trust Fund, which is the primary source of funding for the state components of infrastructure projects.
In the past, some of that money has been diverted to uses other than fixing or building roads, notably on funding state police operations. Louisiana State Police has received hundreds of millions of trust fund dollars over the past decade (diverting those funds is constitutionally allowed).
Some stakeholders have advocated a harder stance on spending trust fund money on anything other than infrastructure projects.
• Dedicate additional revenue sources to the trust fund.
Money from vehicle sales taxes is due by law to be phased into the trust fund, boosting the fund by as much as $400 million annually.
But that won’t happen until “triggered” by higher revenue forecasts, unless the legislature acts to remove that trigger.
• Establish an infrastructure bank.
Such a bank, which other states have established, would loan money to parishes and municipalities for infrastructure projects. A constitutional amendment to create a bank in Louisiana failed in the Nov. 4 elections.
Even if such a bank were created, the state would need to fund it somehow.
Other measures floated to raise revenue include increased fees on things such as vehicle registration, tax credits to encourage private investment in transportation infrastructure and taxing usage of alternative fuel vehicles (which evade gas taxes).
Movassaghi also suggests decentralizing the model for funding and prioritizing projects. By empowering local bodies, backed up by expertise from local DOTD offices, to choose which projects to fund and allowing them to raise some of their own revenue, he argues, efficiency would be increased.
“I think there’s hope for the future,” Perret said. “Some of these things may not be able to get passed (in the legislature) this session, but talking about them is setting the groundwork.”
Redman said he has seen a greater recognition among the driving public that construction costs go up over time and taxes that passed years ago don’t offer the same buying power today. To sell the public on revenue-raising measures, he said, education on those issues has to continue and people have to be convinced money raised for infrastructure won’t be diverted elsewhere.
“They have to trust that money is not going into a general fund,” Redman said. “They have to know that money they’re paying at the pump or in higher fees is actually going for road improvements.”
Louisiana roads by the numbers
Louisiana’s road system ranking in performance and cost effectiveness in an annual report from the Reason Foundation.
Louisiana’s ranking in rural interstate pavement condition, rural arterial pavement condition and urban interstate pavement condition in the Reason Foundation report.
Louisiana’s rank in spending per state-controlled mile.
Decline in Louisiana’s highway spending (inflation adjusted) between 2008-13. Only Georgia had a larger drop.
Estimated backlog of unmet transportation needs in the state.
Number of bridges, out of nearly 13,000, in the state classified as “structurally deficient,” meaning one or more elements are in poor or worse condition. Only eight states have a greater percentage of their bridge inventory designted this way.
Bridges considered “functionally obsolete,” meaning they do not meet current designed standards.
Annual cost to Louisiana motorists from driving on roads that are in poor condition, congested, or lack safety features, according to a 2010 report from The Road Information Project.