Promises are cheap and $12 billion is an awful lot of money.
What is encouraging is that the two major candidates for governor pledged a commitment to transportation problems when challenged by a Baton Rouge-based group of major employers. It’s not at all clear, yet, where the big money is going to come from for the biggest projects.
One of the major traffic bottlenecks was identified by both candidates in Monday’s televised debate as that involving Interstates 10 and 12 in the capital city. But both candidates also pointed to other major projects around the state, not least completing Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans.
“The transportation infrastructure crisis facing Baton Rouge is not just a local issue but one of statewide significance, and we are grateful that both gubernatorial candidates acknowledge that reality and expressed support for priority action steps important for future economic expansion,” said Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of a group called CRISIS. The acronymn stands for Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions.
While CRISIS is a project of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, its challenge to the candidates is relevant across the state. We don’t have enough money to pay for the massive $12 billion backlog in needed projects.
Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter told CRISIS in questionnaires that they back the group’s five election priorities, including hammering out a consensus road and bridge improvement plan for the Baton Rouge area in conjunction with area state lawmakers and others. “That (I-10) bottleneck is one of the worst in the country and it is literally bottlenecking our economy,” Vitter said.
As so often in politics, the candidates soft-pedaled the notion of new revenues, which was implicit in one of the CRISIS statements. No one wants to admit just before an election that major projects cost so much money that even significant reforms in how existing transportation funds are spent will not build the “megaprojects.”
Those include the big issues like new bridges on Interstate 10 over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge or the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles, but also many other backlogged projects in the state.
We also urge the candidates to avoid political rhetoric on these issues. Vitter asserted that only 11 percent of the existing Transportation Trust Fund goes for highways, but that’s not completely accurate; that doesn’t count millions spent every year paying off bonds from earlier major projects. It’s like saying a mortgage payment is not a housing expense.
More positively, both Vitter and Edwards backed protections for the trust fund to ensure that dollars are not siphoned off for general fund expenditures, as has occurred regularly under Gov. Bobby Jindal.
We applaud the employers in the CRISIS group for this effort. Given the imminence of the election, and the reluctance of political figures to ask for new revenues, it’s probably as strong a commitment from the candidates as can reasonably be expected.