Editorial Roundup: Louisiana

The Advocate. September 13, 2022.

Editorial: Our wretched roads won’t get better if we don’t pay more at the pump

Wish you were buying things at the price of 32 years ago? Don’t we all, but we all also know that we’re not going to get as much for our money.

And that goes for road repairs in Louisiana, the Potholes-a-Million State.

To the surprise of no one, a new report from the Legislative Auditor’s Office tells the old story of Louisiana’s neglect in paying for road repairs, not to mention building new roads and bridges.

The state gasoline tax is 20 cents per gallon, which has not been raised in more than three decades. Inflation, not a new phenomenon, has worked its magic during those decades. Unlike Louisiana, 22 states index their gas taxes to price rises.

The auditor’s office has a handy calculator: If the Louisiana state gas tax had been linked to inflation in 1990, it would be 41 cents per gallon today instead of 20 cents — raising $1.2 billion per year versus $600 million.

Federal aid for major highways does come in, but it requires matching state funds. And Louisiana must maintain the federally funded highways, too. That’s more difficult in many places in southeastern Louisiana because of our alluvial soils deposited from the ancient course of the Mississippi River.

All told, the situation is just about where it always was: Legislators say their constituents don’t want to pay more at the pump, even if the folks back home also complain about the roads all the time.

Only Mississippi and Alaska have gone so long without raising their gas taxes; the latter is heavily subsidized by oil prices. And Mississippi is like us in resistance to taxes, but also has much more robustly funded local governments. People pay there for better roads through local property taxes as well as state transportation funds.

And the auditor’s report does make it clear, as legislators say they understand, that there are problems with overreliance on gasoline taxes in the future.

State Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson, a veteran DOTD employee put in the top spot by Gov. John Bel Edwards, is an able leader in this arena.

But his agency’s funding prospects are complicated by what he called “changing dynamics” on the roads. Those are outlined in the new report: Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack said more fuel-efficient vehicles lower consumption of gasoline. Electric vehicles, which won’t be utilizing the state’s gas pumps, must also be taxed somehow otherwise. Waguespack projected that those changing dynamics will lower motor vehicle tax revenues over the coming decade to the tune of $564 million.

Legislators understand the landscape but apparently don’t have the guts to explain realities to their constituents. Although it is a bit like raiding Peter’s purse to pay Paul, they voted instead to divert some vehicle sales tax revenues to road repairs over several years.

Drivers of electric vehicles are relatively few in Louisiana, so lawmakers had no political compunctions about a bill by Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, that will establish an annual fee for hybrid and electric vehicles. Edwards signed the measure into law and the fees go into effect next January.

But baby steps won’t get us new bridges on the interstate highways or build many other roads needed in the state. If we wimp out on gas taxes for decades, that is what happens.