DALLAS – Louisiana must find the revenue needed to fund an additional $400 million of highway projects each year to begin making a dent in its $12.7 billion backlog of road and bridge work, according to the transportation transition team appointed last month by Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards.
The panel, which was appointed by the newly elected Democrat in early December, recommended in a report released Monday that the state boost its annual transportation infrastructure expenditures to at least $1 billion a year, up from $590 million in fiscal 2016, which runs through June 30.
Raising the additional $400 million per year or more may not be popular but it is necessary, the transition team said.
"The generation of new state dollars for transportation infrastructure projects by raising taxes or fees, while not attractive, may be the only way in which Louisiana's unmet transportation infrastructure needs will begin to be addressed along with new and necessary projects," the panel said.
Highway construction contract awards averaged $1.2 billion per year between 2005 and 2012 but since then have averaged $600 million a year, the report said.
"The general consensus of the committee was that proper funding of the transportation system is key," the panel said. "In the past several years, dollars spent directly on the transportation system have dwindled and improvements have been halted."
The report listed several revenue-producing options, including an increase in the state gasoline tax, a local option gasoline tax, a state sales tax on motor fuels, tolls, public-private partnerships, and a fee on vehicle miles traveled.
Greg Morrison, an executive with a trucking company in Shreveport, La., who co-chaired the 27-member transition committee, said the panel wanted to give Edwards a variety of potential new revenues to consider.
"We put everything on the table, even the things that would make some of us uncomfortable," he said. "We had to put aside our parochial interests for the overall good of the state, and that's what we did. We're not saying any one of these is the answer, but we wanted to provide as many options as possible."
Edwards will be sworn in as governor for a four-year term on Jan. 11.
Shawn Wilson, secretary-designate of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said Edwards probably will not seek an increase in transportation taxes or fees during the special legislative session set to convene in mid-February. The state is facing a $1.9 billion budget shortfall in fiscal 2017.
The Edwards administration will initially focus on preventing diversions from the state transportation fund and maximizing the state dollars available as the match for federal funding, he said.
"I think the approach, from the conversations I've had with the governor, is not selecting either of those [revenue options] specifically, but having a robust conversation with the legislators, with the stakeholders, with the communities, about which one will give us the best value for the buck," Wilson said Monday when he unveiled the transportation report during an address to the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
"We hope at some point to find additional dollars," he said.
The $12.7 billion backlog will have to be worked off slowly, Wilson said.
"You can eat an elephant," he said. "You just can't do it all at one sitting."
Reducing the backlog will require an increase in the state's gasoline tax of 20 cents per gallon, Wilson said.
"DOTD does not receive any general funds from the state, so our entire budget is based on the gas tax, and it's based on federal matching dollars," he said. "The most important thing is that if you don't have the dollars at the state level to make the match, none of it will come."