Transportation infrastructure essential to state’s economic vitality
By: Jennifer Marusak
These are certainly not easy times. Many critical funding decisions at the state level will soon be made that will inevitably chart a course for our future. One such decision will be whether to truly make Louisiana’s transportation system – its roads, bridges and ports - a priority.
Some will argue we should not be focusing on transportation needs when health and education programs are seriously threatened. We are mindful, however, of the arguments that helped last year to win important recognition of the need for reliable, recurring transportation funding in Louisiana. The fact is funding transportation infrastructure is essential to the state’s economic growth and development. It will enable our future and act as an important catalyst in lifting Louisiana out of the current economic recession.
Just last year the new governor and legislature made an important first step in their commitment to provide long-term support to Louisiana’s $14 billion backlog in state transportation construction projects. Making good on promises to give roads, highways, bridges and ports the priority they require and deserve, they committed a significant portion of one time surplus funds for highway construction and then followed that with legislation that began the transfer of the vehicle sales tax money from the general fund to the transportation trust fund. These actions carried with them both tangible and symbolic confirmation that transportation needs had finally become a state priority.
Unfortunately, our optimism was short-lived.
The recent economic downturn has halted the phase-in of the transfer of those vehicle sales tax funds, and Department of Transportation Secretary William Ankner has indicated the suspension in the funds transfer could force him to halt highway construction project bidding and cause Louisiana to lose more than $100 million in federal funds. This will cause worker lay offs in the construction industry and worsen the unemployment situation. It will also put us even further behind in addressing the $14 billion backlog in state transportation construction projects.
Even more troubling is all the talk of budget cuts and dire revenue estimates that could leave the state wanting for the foreseeable future have put transportation needs once again on the back burner. Rarely do we now hear our state leadership talking about addressing transportation needs. Surely they don’t think that they have “solved” the transportation funding problems.
The good news is that there are some things that can be done now to get us back to where we were just months ago.
First, dedicating, as we’ve done before, a significant portion of last year’s state surplus money for transportation will help offset the cut that has come about as a result of budget shortfalls triggering the suspension in the funds transfer. This action would allow Secretary Ankner to proceed with awarding contracts for construction activity through this fiscal year. Second, legislation is needed to untie the transfer of vehicle sales tax funds from budget shortfalls. One has nothing to do with the other, and while the infusion of surplus dollars has certainly been helpful, we are never going to able to seriously address the $14 billion backlog in state transportation projects if we don’t lock in new, predictable sources of money.
While the future is uncertain and our challenges are great, one thing is clear - funding transportation infrastructure is fundamental to providing for Louisiana’s short and long-term economic growth and development. Our future is riding on it.
Jennifer Marusak is Executive Director of Driving Louisiana Forward.firstname.lastname@example.org