In Louisiana governor’s race, critics say candidates’ transportation plans are short on specifics

The Advocate

Despite prodding by advocacy groups, the four major candidates for governor have declined to offer any sweeping plans for solving road and bridge problems in Louisiana.

All four of the contenders acknowledge the problem is huge, critics say, but they have not said what they plan to do if elected governor.

“You don’t hear them matching their rhetoric with specifics,” said Adam Knapp, president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Even the anything-but-liberal business leaders at BRAC say the candidates should be talking about lots of options, such as increasing the gasoline tax, linking the gas tax to the rate of inflation and establishing toll roads.

BRAC is also spending about $80,000 for television and radio ads aimed at getting state and local candidates to detail their proposals.

“If they don’t spell out specific and serious solutions to this crisis, they can’t be serious,” one of the ads says.

The top candidates are U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie; Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, a Baton Rouge Republican; Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, a Breaux Bridge Republican; and state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite.

The primary is Oct. 24. Early voting begins Saturday and continues through Oct. 17.

Roads and bridges were the sole topic during the candidates’ first forum on Jan. 16.

But in many ways voters know little more about how the candidates would tackle transportation problems as governor than they did nearly nine months ago.

All four said then that the state had to restore voter confidence in how road and bridge dollars are used before a major funding hike would be possible.

Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure, or CRISIS, said business leaders want to see “more meat on the bone” about what the candidates would do.

“Although the sounds bites are ‘Hey, we know there are problems in Baton Rouge’ and ‘Hey, we want to restore trust in the trust fund,’ they don’t allow business and industry to feel like this candidate is going to make this happen,” Kirkpatrick said.

Why the reluctance?

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton, who ran for governor in 1995, said candidates are afraid to unveil their plans during the campaign. Whoever wins the race knows “they are going to have to make some very difficult decisions and they are going to have to make them very fast,” he said.

“And those decisions are not going to make a lot of people happy,” Adley said. “And so when you are running for office, you are not going to tell which one you are going to make unhappy.”

Louisiana has been beset by transportation problems for years, triggering multiple studies, but no comprehensive plans to address them.

The state has a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, and in recent years it has struggled even to come up with the roughly $70 million a year needed for upkeep.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, this year pushed a $7.5 billion, 1-cent state sales tax increase to finance 16 major projects, including a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. However, the bill failed in the House, and a second bill to increase the state’s gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon died too.

One of the recurring complaints is that Vitter, Dardenne, Angelle and Edwards offer plans around the edges of Louisiana’s transportation woes without addressing the big picture.

Knapp said it is “incredibly frustrating” that the candidates offer plans to revamp the state’s key funding source, the Transportation Trust Fund, “as if that solves things.”

“You cannot talk about this in one small piece,” he said. “You have to be able to articulate the core issue, which is the system capacity.”

Vitter wants to shield transportation funding from raids to pay for other services, streamline the state Department of Transportation and Development, craft a high-priorities highway program and develop a user-friendly DOTD app.

Dardenne wants to limit transportation dollars to transportation projects, revamp capital spending to get more dollars into road and bridge work and “explore” tolls as a way to finance big projects.

Angelle wants to trim administrative spending at DOTD, change the capital spending program to aid highways and “explore” the use of public-private partnerships to build toll roads.

Edwards wants to boost capital spending for roads and bridges by about $75 million per year, draw more federal dollars and stabilize Louisiana’s operating budget to prevent raids on transportation funding.

Adley, a veteran of nearly three decades in the Legislature, said the next governor has two choices: raise taxes or get rid of tax credits.

“We have given away the ranch,” he said. “We either have to take back some of the ranch or take money from somebody on the ranch. And they are not going to talk about that.”

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