All spring, the Gov. John Bel Edwards Administration lectured the state on the allegedly crucial nature of a gasoline tax hike. Breathless and loud proclamations echoed across the land, about how only such an increase, ideally 17 cents or an 85 percent increase over the current level, could permit the state to fund roads beyond the margins. Worse, it argued, the state would not have enough money to take advantage fully of federal matching dollars.
Of course, the attempt to panic policy-makers and the public into raising taxes would have served more to inflate government than to act as a necessary tool to address surface transportation priorities. When sifting through giveaways to local governments and the private sector, unnecessary programs, and bucks spent on air and water infrastructure, $120 million a year could be redirected to roads if policy-makers wanted without any taxes going higher.
Enough legislators seemed to understand this and beat back any attempted rise this past legislative regular session. And, half a year later, actions by the Administration prove them correct. It turns out that the state will begin a major overhaul of the Belle Chasse tunnel and its accompanying bridge to the tune of $122 million, all without any cents added to the gas tax.
This comes about because the state adopted a strategy long articulated by critics of any rate hike at the pump, leveraging private sector cash and user fees. For the first time ever, the state will enter into a public-private partnership on roads, one that will have the private sector pay for construction in exchange for 10 percent of toll revenue for a certain number of years. Officials also hope to win a federal grant to contribute.
Had the boost in cents occurred, at the very least the state would have pursued less aggressively this option, if at all. Instead, the Administration’s failure to ram that home forced it to concentrate more heavily on solutions like partnerships, vindicating perhaps ruefully to it what opponents of the increase had argued.
As for the loss of over $100 million in matching federal money, not a peep has come from the Administration about that. It seems that was some crying of wolf as well.
When the appropriate legislative committees receive the contracts negotiated to accomplish the Belle Chasse replacements, if in order they should approve these. For the future, the Administration must continue pursuit of such deals, as well as making local governments or users take more responsibility for roads desires that mainly benefit their areas and have users of state port facilities pay their fair share for capital improvements of those. Staying on this path will free enough dollars to make considerable progress on roads needs that benefit the state as a whole without reaching deeper into drivers’ pockets.