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Regional transportation idea faces too many hurdles

In all of the clutter expressed about Louisiana transportation needs and funding options that almost always focus on raising gasoline excise taxes at the pump, gubernatorial candidate Sen. David Vitter came up with something different. Unfortunately, in this case, “different” does not mean “better.”

It’s not that Vitter’s idea for a taxation regime at the local level that could come from a variety of sources was worse than tacking on more cents to the gallon – it actually could turn out better by presenting more options – but that in his idea was to make it regional. Employed in a few isolated instances in the country – perhaps the best examples being the Metro government in and around Portland, OR, and the Metropolitan Council in the area containing and around Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN – the idea is that greater efficiency in use of tax dollars and better planning come from subgovernments working together instead of in uncoordinated fashion or even at cross-purposes.

Transportation systems provide a key input into how metropolitan areas grow and the economic development that comes from that. Haphazard structuring resulting from discrete units deciding independently would come substantially less often through chance if some kind of regional government made decisions about building roads, mandating that this unit takes care of collecting the revenues to finance building and executing that task.

Yet note the geographical limitation here – this is more a metropolitan idea than a regional idea. The state simply cannot be divided into units that mix and match urban/suburban areas and rural areas and have this idea work well. Individual local government needs simply differ too greatly and they would chafe under Vitter’s proposal, which apparently would have the same level of tax, whether excise, sales, or property, dedicated by each government in the region diverted to a pool of money used for transportation decided in some consultative fashion. No matter how sliced, inevitably almost all of those dollars would get spent on metropolitan areas and therefore rural residents disproportionately would pay the freight.

Let’s say instead Vitter’s “regional” conception really meant “metropolitan,” to moot this concern. Still, even with that out of the way, the decision-making structure about taxing and how to use the proceeds would be controversial, to say the least. Some kind of supra-municipal/supra-parish local government would have to come into being constitutionally, creating rival power centers to the traditional local governments, much like as developed with creation of regional flood protection authorities but the membership of which for political reasons simply cannot be regionally-appointed officials; unlike with levees that are few and largely out of sight, with numerous roads affecting intimately life within any municipality and parish, representation will have to be on the basis of local governmental units. That imports controversy about what units effectively would control the new government and worries about whether they could impose their preferences onto unwilling others.

And with a well-embedded history of very localized land use decisions in the political culture, local governments and their publics would be extremely skeptical of handing over powers in these areas to these new subgovernments. The recent history of a flood protection authority going rogue demonstrates the very real threat easily envisioned among the citizenry that would discourage its political support needed to make the Constitutional and statutory changes required.

Of course, the state could try to avoid these issues by not having a centralizing subgovernment involved, with itself acting as transportation planner and executor with the financing authorized by the existing local governments. But this would create a logistical nightmare that might never allow for any projects to go forward; to implement a regional plan, for example using an increase in the gasoline tax, every municipality and parish in the area would have to have their publics vote affirmatively to raise those taxes on themselves, with likely at least a few areas feeling the plan shortchanges them relative to their input and inclined to turn it down.

So while the idea is interesting, it seems relatively impractical compared to changing the Constitution to allow for local governments to tack on extra gasoline taxes within their boundaries. That doesn’t do much for coordination purposes, but if local populations want to do that to their people and businesses who fill up their tanks and use those revenues for roads, it’s much likelier they could do that than it is to set up a much more complicated process almost guaranteed to produce little if anything.

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