The Advocate

In a key vote, the state House is looking at a significant increase in the tax on motor fuels. But it’s not as if the 17-cents-a-gallon increase proposed is really that much of a hike, given that the last time that tax went up was 28 years ago.

What hasn’t cost more in 28 years?

The expense of road-building, bridges and ports and all sorts of construction projects have gone up dramatically in that time. Those costs have reduced the state’s gasoline tax to about half its purchasing power of a generation ago.

At the direction of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a committee of experts looked deeply into the issues over more than a year, and a thoughtful recommendation emerged for the 17-cents increase. The bill by state Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, has some language intended to reassure eternally evasive legislators that the money will be focused on infrastructure and not other purposes.

Legislators, though, want roads and other projects but are reluctant to vote for the taxes needed to pay those bills. They’ve kicked the gas can down the road for decades.

Getting the votes for the new bill in the conservative Ways and Means Committee, where it passed 9-7, was certainly a nontrivial exercise of leadership by Carter, and a bipartisan coalition of supporters including major business organizations like One Acadiana, the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc.

Raising the gas tax is an additional cost on business, particularly if one is delivering anything from pizzas to newspapers. We’re a mobile society, so this is a broad cost to consumers as well, but it should be kept in perspective.

The tax increase would cost about $120 a year for the average driver at the pump. The road improvements from a higher gas tax should reduce the wear and tear on vehicles and the traffic congestion that eats up time and money for so many people in their daily commutes.

Investing in roads, bridges, ports and rail generates economic benefits in the long term. Louisiana is one of many states over the last couple of years waking up to the challenge of unmet infrastructure needs.

President Donald Trump wants to invest more in roads and bridges at the national level. But if he and Congress do so, Louisiana wouldn’t have enough cash in the transportation fund to pay for matching funds for new projects.

Edwards argues that the state is already at a critical juncture: Today’s federal highway checks require state maintenance of roads and a cash match. Other money is now being scraped up, to the tune of $40 million, to match $200 million in federal funds in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

That’s a huge difference from the past, when Louisiana would have cash on hand to snag leftover money from states failing to use their total allotment.

As the president might say, we want to be winners in the highway money lottery, not losers — and unless the Legislature acts, the latter is what we’ll be, both in terms of specific projects lost and economic growth foregone.