After years of growing traffic and strapped road budgets, Louisiana voters will get a chance next month to put a governor in office who cares about fixing the state's roads. But getting the leading candidates -- three Republicans and one Democrat -- to spell out their plans for fixing the problem has proven tricky.
The reason? The budget. All four candidates have been attempting to tap voter frustration about bad roads, particularly in the vote-rich Baton Rouge area. The gubernatorial campaign even started with a debate on transportation. But the state's budget is in bad shape and voters are wary of any tax increases. As a result, most of the campaign promises so far have been vague or small.
David Vitter, the Republican U.S. senator who is considered the frontrunner in the race, ran radio ads in the Baton Rouge area promising to move a highway exit in an effort to ease congestion on the notoriously crowded Interstate 10. Other candidates have called for a new bridge over the Mississippi River, toll roads or other solutions to the problem. They have also offered ideas on creating a commuter rail route between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. But the overarching issue concerning transportation is funding, and the candidates don't have much to say about that.
Louisiana hasn't raised its per-gallon fuel taxes since 1984, and its buying power has waned over the last three decades because of inflation. In recent years, transportation funds have grown scarcer because of the Great Recession and Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's opposition to new taxes. The state's transportation trust fund has increasingly been used to cover ancillary transportation-related costs, such as state police, transportation workers, port expenses and bond interest payments, rather than road construction or maintenance. Only 11 percent of the trust fund now pays for construction.
Vitter and his opponents in the Oct. 24 election -- Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards -- want to devote more of the state's transportation trust fund toward construction costs. But the candidates have shied away from explaining how they would pay for activities currently covered by the trust fund.
"All four gubernatorial candidates recognize the need for transportation improvements," said Ken Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, a group that wants the state to spend more money on transportation. "But because state is so antitax oriented, they are reluctant to come up with any plan with revenue."
Perret's group wants the state to hike its gas tax by 10 cents a gallon, on top of the state's current 20-cent tax. The influx of money would gradually help address the $12 billion backlog in construction needs for the state's existing roads, and maybe help the state start projects to expand its road network, Perret said. The group also backs two measures on the ballot next month that could spur transportation spending.
"Good roads cost money," he said, "but bad roads cost more."
Efforts to hike the gas tax, however, have stalled in the capitol in recent years, with Jindal's veto threat looming and other budget pressures overshadowing transportation needs. Lawmakers this spring closed a $1.6 billion projected deficit in this year's budget by raising cigarette taxes and reining in tax breaks. But that fix has proven short-lived; legislative analysts already predict another $700 million deficit in next year's budget. Not talking about where to find new transportation money could hamper the incoming governor, said Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of Baton Rouge's Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions (CRISIS). "If you come out of the election with that mandate, having discussed how you raise the revenue for these specific items, you have a better chance of success."
Business leaders and transportation planners in the Baton Rouge area formed CRISIS this year to push for more transportation funding. In the last five years, area voters approved local tax hikes to improve local roads and transit, but the interstate is still the major choke point in town, and it's under state control. Unlike most metropolitan areas, Baton Rouge does not have a bypass around the city. For one stretch, the interstate narrows to a single lane in each direction.
With the region's population growing, traffic on the interstate is hurting the bottom line for many businesses, Kirkpatrick said. Companies also find it difficult to plan their own future without a plan in place to ease the congestion. Voters in the area are pressing both gubernatorial and state legislative candidates for ideas on how to fix it.
"Traffic and infrastructure are top priorities of many in the Baton Rouge area. [Voters] are looking for candidates to offer a specific solution," Kirkpatrick said. "Everybody's hoping that the state will come forward and drive some solutions and provide the money, or some of the money, to make them happen."