Road spending scrutiny needed before any push for new dollars, Edwards’ advisory panel says

Tackling Louisiana’s road and bridge crisis first requires that the state plug leaks in the key fund used for improvements, according to Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ transportation advisory panel.

Those little-noticed annual diversions include $370 million in administrative costs, nearly $300 million in recent years for State Police and $13 million per year now, and much more later, to help pay off the debt for improvements that voters approved more than a quarter of a century ago.

Greg Morrison, chairman of the 27-member transition committee, said a review of spending is needed before Edwards and the Legislature consider tax and fee hikes to improve roads and bridges.

“I think absolutely, yes, that will have to be done first and foremost,” said Morrison, who lives in Bossier City and is vice president/manager of Quality Transport Co.

The recommendations dovetail with what Edwards has been saying for more than a year — voters have to have confidence in how road and bridge dollars are being used now before they are asked to pay more.

Repeated efforts to find transportation solutions in the Legislature have gone nowhere for years, in part because outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal has declined to back any tax increases.

The committee said finding new dollars “may be the only way in which Louisiana’s unmet transportation needs will begin to be addressed.”

Options include hikes in the state gasoline tax, sales tax, allowing local governments to impose their own gasoline tax increase, tolls and higher fees on cars and trucks.

However, the panel said the first priority should be a review of how dollars are now used in the key account for new and improved roads and bridges — the Transportation Trust Fund, or TTF.

Since voters authorized the fund in 1989, the report says, “monies have been utilized in a way many people believe was not intended nor expected.”

The state Department of Transportation and Development’s administration and operating budget used to be financed through Louisiana’s general revenue fund.

But shortly after the TTF was opened most of those costs were moved from the general revenue fund to TTF.

Annual expenses from the fund have since exploded from $77 million to $370 million.

That larger figure is roughly what it would cost to add a new lane in each direction on Interstate 10 from the I-10 Mississippi River Bridge to the I-10/12 split.

“While the public expects these dollars to pay for transportation infrastructure, in actuality these dollars primarily are paying for personnel. Personnel-related benefits, materials, utilities, equipment maintenance, travel, supplies, interagency transfers, some professional services and equipment replacement,” according to the review.

State Treasurer John Kennedy said voters understand roads cost money.

“Their problem is they believe that if they give the state more money they will never see the roads,” Kennedy said. “Their attitude is we have tried that before and there is no education in the second kick of a mule.”

Ken Perret, head of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, said it “does not really seem fair” that dollars for roads and bridges are used for administration and other expenses.

“People expected that money to be used for improvements,” said Perret, a former top official of DOTD.

“And yet you can’t have the improvements if you don’t have the agency to handle it,” he said. “It is kind of a Catch-22.”

In addition, any sudden transfer of DOTD funding responsibilities from TTF to the state general fund would worsen an already bleak budget outlook.

“The operating and administrative budget of DOTD is in need of thorough examination in order to determine if the state’s transportation dollars are being spent effectively,” according to the advisory committee report.

In another area, the review echoed a longtime issue and said $292 million was moved out of TTF to State Police between 2012-16.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who was complimentary of the report, took it a step further and said he would encourage incoming DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson to consider huge changes in the agency.

“We need to redesign a state Department of Transportation from scratch based upon what we are trying to do today rather than trying to maintain this legacy system,” said Graves, a member of the U. S. House Transportation Committee.

A bill approved last year will gradually trim those annual transfers from $70 million last year to $45 million this year, $20 million next year and $10 million per year in future years.

In a third area, the report noted the fund for roads and bridges will face increasing, annual pressures until 2045 to help pay for 16 projects statewide that voters approved in 1989.

Those upgrades, called TIMED, were supposed to be paid for with 4 cents of Louisiana’s 20-cent-per-gallon state tax.

Instead, parts of the 16 cents for rank-and-file projects are being siphoned off to pay off the debt for the 1989 package.

The tab this year is $14 million, or roughly half a cent, and more than double that in 15 years.

Edwards said he wants to boost spending for roads and bridges by $75 million from Louisiana’s capital outlay fund.

Kennedy said he would urge Edwards to tell voters that, for the next three years, three of four capital dollars yearly — around $375 million — should be used for roads and bridges.

“Taxpayers hear us talk about the need for roads,” he said. “But they look at our capital spending and it is less than a third for roads.”

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.

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