On October 11, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) provided Capital Region legislators their annual “road show” report on the plan of work for the next fiscal year. It contained a lot of technical information, like current phases of pre-construction study projects, length and location of highways segments, and pavement condition requirements. But it also included a tough wake-up call for those wanting to get an update on when signature megaprojects – like a new bridge across the Mississippi in Baton Rouge – would be finished.
The depressing reality? They aren’t coming, because there was no new statewide funding for transportation passed by the Legislature in 2017’s legislative session.
This isn’t to say there will be no work done. DOTD will finish environmental review, cost estimates, and design of the I-10 widening project from the I-12 split to the Mississippi River bridge by June 2018, at which point that project is (theoretically) shovel ready and awaiting funding. The construction project for the Terrace Street exit off of I-110 will be underway in 2018, leading to possible changes/closure for the infamous Washington Street exit once completed. The Ascension Parish stretch of I-10 widening is funded and will begin construction next year through a design-build process. We also still have enormous maintenance needs to address, smaller projects to tackle where possible, and some promising near-term opportunities that don’t require hundreds of millions of dollars or legislative action.
A ride-sharing program, the Commuter Krewe of Louisiana, has been launched to help commuters find carpool and smart commute options tailored to their workplace. DOTD has also been exploring how to create High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on highway shoulders, opening up additional capacity and encouraging efficient travel decisions at very low cost. In addition, the upcoming bike share program, improvements to the Capital Area Transit System such as express busses and on-demand services like Uber and Lyft, improved pedestrian networks, and resources like the Bike Baton Rouge interactive bike map can provide opportunities for inexpensive and near-term commuting alternatives. But how did we get here in the first place?
The gas tax, the largest contributor to construction dollars, has been losing purchasing power since the 80s. Like most other states, Louisiana is having trouble even maintaining the roads we have, much less constructing the $13.4 billion in backlogged projects. Louisiana is hit particularly hard by funding issues due to our low population, which impacts how much revenue we raise, and our swampy terrain, which increases the cost of projects. These funding shortages, and a federal mandate to prioritize keeping the interstate system in good condition, mean that DOTD is having to shift into “preservation-only” mode.
BRAC and the BUILD IT coalition led a statewide campaign during the last legislative cycle to increase the gas tax enough to make headway on these infrastructure needs. Despite the best efforts of Representative Steve Carter and others, however, we fell short. What we see now is the predicable result. Major projects addressing urgent needs are in limbo, as we hope for the state legislature to raise revenue or some kind of federal windfall.
For those of us who drive through Capital Region congestion every day, hope just isn’t enough, and we don’t have the option to give up on urgent megaproject needs. The Capital Region has some of the worst traffic in the country, and we have a transportation network that is not nearly resilient enough for disaster-prone South Louisiana. We know we can’t address these issues without more funding. But we also can’t let our lives be dictated by what we don’t have. By taking advantage of innovative transportation options, we can create opportunities now at the local level while advocating for long-term solutions at the state.
Anderson serves as BRAC’s Director of Governmental Affairs and Special Projects, responsible for the organization’s governmental relations and advocacy efforts and managing other projects related to economic competitiveness and quality of life.