When it comes to highways, have Louisiana motorists been taken for a ride?
Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and Department of Transportation Secretary Johnny Bradberry joined for a free-ranging discussion about Louisiana highways, roads and bridges .
As many as 20 average citizens took part in the discussion. First, they watched a background video on the condition of our roads and bridges. Next, they discussed the subject among themselves and came up with questions to ask Governor Blanco and Secretary Bradberry.
To gauge the effectiveness of the deliberative discussion, the participants were polled before and after the show to see if their opinions about our education system change after getting their questions answered. The poll results provided by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab at the Manship School of Mass Communication’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs were announced at the end of the show.
LPB President Beth Courtney and former CNN anchor and reporter Charles Zewe are the hosts for the program. This episode is underwritten by Entergy.
The recent evacuation of New Orleans because of Hurricane Ivan placed a spotlight on Louisiana roads and highways. Walter Maestri, Director of Jefferson Parish Emergency Management recalls the scene.
“If you were flying in on a helicopter out of metropolitan New Orleans on the day before the storm made land fall you would have seen a steady stream — in fact for a period of about ten to twelve hours — you would have seen basic gridlock on the interstate ten system; on highway 90; on highway 61 toward Baton Rouge...”
Though not as dramatic as life-threatening storms, everyday highway congestion and poor road conditions are issues many Louisiana motorists can relate to.
Nearly 17 thousand miles of state roads and close to nine hundred miles of interstate highways fall under the jurisdiction of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development [DOTD].
Among Louisiana drivers, DOTD efforts get mixed reviews. Some compare Louisiana roads unfavorably with those of neighboring states like Mississippi.
The Federal Highway Administration agrees. It says, 47 states have better pavement conditions than Louisiana. Nearly a quarter of the state’s major roads are in poor condition.
Part of the problem relates to geology: in most areas of the state, bedrock lies many hundreds of feet below the surface, leaving shifting – and in some cases, sinking – soil to support the roads.
Another problem is wear and tear. One heavily-laden commercial 18-wheel truck has a same effect on pavement as 9,000 cars. DOTD hopes innovations such as the Port of Baton Rouge’s new “container-on-barge” facility will help to reduce truck traffic between the capitol and New Orleans. Containerized loads are lifted off the trucks at the Port, then placed on barges for the journey down river. This is one example of “inter-modal transportation,” where cargoes can be seamlessly transferred between road, rail, water and air.
Although the state is struggling to keep up with current needs, the volume of products carried by commercial trucks in Louisiana is expected to double by the year 2030. The additional traffic will put more stress on a system that already has a 10 billion dollar backlog of needed projects – including repairs to the nearly 1 in 5 Louisiana bridges that are structurally deficient.
Last year, over half of DOTD’s 1.37 billion dollar budget went for new construction. Nearly a third was spent on maintenance and pavement overlays.
In an effort to rationalize the transportation spending process, Louisiana adopted a priority program for road construction in 1974. Money was to be allocated according to need, based on traffic counts and road conditions, rather than the whim of powerful lawmakers and governors. Bills to bring back the old ways of doing business are regularly introduced at the state capitol, several as recently as this past legislative session.
In 1989, the voters approved a constitutional amendment creating the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development, known as the TIMED program. An additional four cents was added to the existing 16 cents-per gallon gasoline tax to fund transportation-related projects. The TIMED road construction program will expend $3.5 billion on improving and widening 500 miles of Louisiana highways. About a third of the projects have been completed. The rest will be done by 2010.
Better roads will come ... at a price. At 10 million dollars per mile for new urban interstate construction, and between a half a million and 2 million per mile for routine overlays, even billion dollar budgets don’t go very far before running out of gas.
The state says it needs an additional 250 million dollars a year to make measurable improvements in what it calls the “transportation infrastructure:” the vast web of roads, rails, waterways and water and air ports that all must connect together to move people and cargo from point A to point B as safely and as quickly as possible.