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Riegel: A new road map for funding infrastructure?

January 15, 2019
By Stephanie Riegel
Originally Posted on Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

The latest effort by the business community to get state lawmakers behind a plan to invest in the state’s crumbling roads and bridges is called the Louisiana Coalition to Fix Our Roads.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the abbreviation, LCFOR, doesn’t form a catchy acronym.

The last time this mostly same group organizations got together over transportation infrastructure issues, they formed Businesses United for Improving Louisiana’s Development by Investing in Transportation Infrastructure, which shortened nicely to BUILD IT.

Unfortunately, BUILD IT’s efforts in 2017 to push for a 17-cent gasoline tax proposed by Baton Rouge’s own state Rep. Steve Carter fell flat. Nearly two years later, there’s been a lot of attention on the more than $13 billion backlog of state infrastructure projects, not to mention talk of new megaprojects like a third span across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. But there hasn’t been a whole lot of tangible progress.

Is there any reason to think LCFOR might be different? Actually, there are several.

For one, in the nearly two years since the failed gas tax effort, traffic in the Capital Region has worsened and people are increasingly fed up. Maybe there’s been more talk than action, but that talk is starting to change minds about solutions that involve raising revenue, i.e. taxes.

Late last year, tax-averse East Baton Rouge Parish voters even approved a 30-year, half-cent sales tax to fund nearly $1 billion worth of local road improvements. That tells you just how frustrated the electorate really is.

Second, unlike BUILD IT—which focused on engaging lawmakers—LCFOR is taking its case directly to the public, at least as a first step, launching a public education campaign that will try to help explain the connection between infrastructure and economic development. Businesses don’t set up shop in states that don’t have good roads and highways. It’s simple.

“There is a lot of misinformation,” says Erich Ponti, a former state representative and current director of the state asphalt association, who also heads LCFOR. “We want to help people understand what the true state of our roads and bridges is and how this costs us when companies decide to go elsewhere.”

LCFOR also promises to be different than other efforts by engaging a variety of “stakeholders,” community groups and grassroots organizations, to help them come up with a comprehensive plan that’s palatable to a broad cross section. So far, it’s too soon to say what that plan will entail, but among the ideas that will be floated: a gasoline tax, a sales tax increase, and some sort of public-private partnership legislation.

Perhaps most importantly, this group’s efforts are coming at a time when the Trump administration is making available federal funds for the kind of infrastructure projects Louisiana needs. To qualify for those funds, however, the state needs to have skin in the game. This reason, more than any, will resonate with Louisiana’s red electorate.

But there are a couple of significant hurdles that threaten this latest effort. For one, while economic development groups like the Committee of 100, Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc.— which tend to support politically moderate positions—are behind LCFOR, the more conservative Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Louisiana Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses are not, at least, not yet.

Those two groups opposed the 2017 effort. This time, they’re open to talking, according to the leadership of both organizations, not in the least because of a constitutional amendment voters approved last fall that protects money in the state’s Transportation Trust Fund from being raided for other uses.

“Our membership is much more positive about these types of plans now that safeguards are in place,” says the NFIB’s Dawn Starns.

Still, both Starns and LABI’s Stephen Waguespack want to see what specific proposals LCFOR comes up with before bringing it to their memberships for a vote.

Another potential threat to LCFOR is the existence of a separate taxing authority in the five-parish capital region that is exploring options to fund a new Mississippi River bridge south of the city.

Though some have said that bridge could be funded by tolls only, others insist some sort of state revenues will have to factor into the equation. That sets up the possibility for two groups—one local and focused on a bridge, another statewide and focused on many projects, including a new bridge—working on competing plans for, say, a gas tax.

“It could complicate things,” says Carter, who is skeptical that Baton Rouge voters will sign off on any additional road tax program.

Ponti disputes the notion that there’s any sort of conflict between the two efforts. The more groups focused on funding the state’s transportation infrastructure, the better, he says. Besides, he and others concede, the likelihood of getting any sort of tax through the legislature in 2019, an election year, is slim.

Though LCFOR intends to try, they’re in it for the long haul and have their eyes on 2020, when there’s a new administration or second-term Gov. John Bel Edwards in office.

“We’ll be pushing for it this year and next,” Ponti says. “Each year we wait, the deficit gets larger.”