Roads Back on Track?



??A special interest group with influential backers hopes to divert lawmakers’ attention away from the financial crisis long enough to convince them that transportation issues are still important. Driving Louisiana Forward (DLF), a nonprofit advocacy group backed by construction and other business interests, is already touting its legislative agenda for the 2009 regular session — or a special session, should one be called. 

In recent legislative sessions, Driving Louisiana Forward convinced lawmakers to spend $600 million in one-time surplus monies on transportation projects and eliminate $40 million in expenses in the form of state police traffic control. “We made some good inroads last year in the campaign, thanks to the support of the governor and the Legislature, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” says Jennifer Marusak, communications director of DLF. “Louisiana still faces a $14 billion backlog in unmet construction needs, and our current road, bridge and port funding simply does not work.”

??According to the Reason Foundation, Louisiana’s transportation system recently dropped to a ranking of 40th in the nation. DLF’s new legislative package would generate about $600 million annually — without increasing state taxes or fees, Marusak says. The specific proposals include dedicating some existing taxes to the transportation fund, off-loading some expenses, and creating a windfall fund using excess mineral revenues.

??Sen. Butch Gautreaux, a Morgan City Democrat who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, says DLF may have picked a bad time to ask for more. Gautreaux says the nonprofit could face some stiff competition for money and attention, despite it being a “worthy” cause. Currently, the state’s primary source of road, bridge and port money is a 16 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, which was approved in 1984 but has never been adjusted for inflation. The buying power of those 16 cents is now less than 8 cents, says Marusak. “That depreciation is the primary reason for the backlog,” she says. DLF will discuss its legislative proposals with the governor’s office, members of the Legislature and businesses and citizens across the state in coming months. Marusak adds that DLF will fund a paid advertising campaign to coincide with the push. — Jeremy Alford

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