Most of us think about roads in terms of our own experience – driving on congested highways or dodging potholes. But roads and other transportation infrastructure are also important in our efforts to bring jobs to Louisiana and keep them.
The positive news is that we have some enviable assets: Six Interstate highways, an extensive port system, and we are one of only two states where all six of North America’s class one railroads converge. But there are problems, particularly with our roads.
Earlier this year The Road Information Program (TRIP), a Washington D.C.-based organization made up of various groups involved in the transportation sector, examined the quality of Louisiana’s highways and bridges and gave us some pretty poor marks.
TRIP gave our roads a grade of “F” based on their conditions. Bridges received a “D-minus,” congestion a “C,” safety an “F” and funding a “D.” They’re not the kind of grades most people would want to see in anything, but together they point to a staggering problem. Louisiana has a current backlog of highway construction needs of $14 billion and growing. This, by the way, does not include a number of large projects like a loop around Baton Rouge and funding for I-49 south which have been talked about for years.
The hard truth is that while money alone can’t fix a lot of things, it can repair our roads. During the recent legislative session, an additional $600 million in one-time funds were targeted to transportation and that’s a positive step. But it addresses only a small portion of our needs.
And there’s another serious problem on the horizon. If Louisiana’s 16-cent gasoline tax, which funds most road construction, remains stagnant, it’s estimated that by 2009 the revenue it generates won’t be enough to match all of the federal dollars available to the state. In other words, we will be leaving road money in Washington that could come to Louisiana because we don’t have enough state dollars to access it.
Generally, Louisiana must find two things to address these mounting issues: 1) additional recurring revenues to go into the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to close the gap in our backlog in the neighborhood of $500 million per year and 2) new revenue streams that will allow the construction of specific large-scale projects not counted in the current backlog.
None of this is easy, but several options have been discussed:
While most of the discussion in transportation is always about roads, Louisiana must also make investments in its ports. Louisiana has one of the most extensive port systems in the world with five of the top 15 ports in the country in terms of tonnage. Together they represent a huge economic driver for our state.
Economists at the University of New Orleans estimate the total economic impact of Louisiana’s ports at more than $30 billion a year. They sustain approximately 270,000 jobs and maintain a recurring tax base of almost $500 million. And yet we are falling behind there, too.
A recent survey of the state’s ports shows a need to invest about $850 million in port facilities over the next five years if Louisiana is to remain competitive. During this same time span, Alabama is investing nearly $300 million in its ports at Mobile and the Port of Houston alone is investing $1 billion. To compete effectively, Louisiana must continue to upgrade and modernize its facilities to make them state-of-the-art while developing a stronger intermodal transportation system to increase accessibility. Our position as a major hub of national and global trade is a huge asset for Louisiana and one of our strengths. We can ill-afford to lose our favorable position to other states.
So where will we go? Louisiana is at a critical juncture. Once again, our geography and natural resources position us to become a regional leader in international trade. One national study projects that by 2020, Louisiana roads will carry one billion “truck miles” of Latin American trade through the state – third highest in the nation trailing only Texas and Florida. The question is, will we be able to handle it?