Louisiana Transportation Revamp Wins Final Legislative Approval, but Critics Say it Ensures Political Projects

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Despite charges that it will spawn politically driven road and bridge projects, the Louisiana House gave final approval to a bill aimed at improving voter confidence in transportation spending.

The measure, House Bill 598, won House approval 60-38 after a brief but intense debate, including charges that the legislation would undo highway reforms enacted about 40 years ago.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said afterwards the change would cause "challenges" for DOTD, and the bill is sure to undergo close scrutiny from Gov. John Bel Edwards.

The key dispute focused on changes to the measure made before the Senate approved it.

Under current rules, the House and Senate transportation committees can nullify road and bridge projects authorized by the state Department of Transportation Committee but cannot add them, officials said.

The bill would allow those panels to add projects at the conclusion of DOTD's annual "road show," which are public hearings statewide on transportation priorities.

Rep. Sam Jones, (D-Franklin), denounced the measure.

Jones said the change would undo highway reforms promoted four decades ago by then state Rep. Richard Baker of Baton Rouge aimed at eliminating projects based on politics, not merit.

"We are just back to the good ole' boy system," he said. "What you are about to do is start the horse trading all over again."

Jones said that while the current system is not ideal it means science and engineering play key roles in which projects are put on DOTD's priority list, subject to funding.

"But it has worked," he told the House. "To do something different now is to open it up to politics, not science."

Rep. Neil Abramson, (D-New Orleans), sponsor of the bill, disputed Jones' concerns, which were echoed by Rep. Katrina Jackson, (D-Monroe) and Barbara Norton, (D-Shreveport).

Abramson said the new rules would not have the drastic impact forecast by Jones.

Abramson said there are misunderstandings surrounding the bill, and the transportation panels already have the authority to delete road and bridge projects.

"It wasn't my amendment but I don't have a problem with the amendment," he said of the change, which was added by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, (R-Lafayette) in committee.

"What it does do is it allows the joint committee to add a project that may have been left off," Abramson said.

Under the bill, DOTD would be required to maintain two lists of projects.

One would include those with dollars assured, and whether the work is on time. The other would include road, bridge and other work that would be possible if dollars are available.

The legislation would also require annual reports by the Legislative Auditor's Office to ensure that state transportation spending is being done properly, including performance audits.

"The question is are we happy with the current system?" Abramson asked in closing comments to the House. "Do you have confidence that the dollars are getting to the roads and bridges?"

Wilson said allowing lawmakers to add projects to DOTD's priority list could raise false hopes that the work would be done even though it has not undergone the preliminary work on feasibility.

"It really does present some challenges in terms of the department being able to deliver a meaningful and efficient priority program," he said.

Abramson's bill was earlier touted by backers of a gas-tax hike as one that would improve voter confidence in DOTD, and boost chances for the increase.

But during the week ended June 3 Rep. Steve Carter, (R-Baton Rouge), withdrew his bill to raise the gas tax by up to 17 cents gallon — $510 million per year — because of a lack of support in the House.

The third measure in the package — House Bill 354 — is set for House debate on June 8, the final day of the regular session.

That bill would allow voters to decide a constitutional amendment on whether to ban the use of transportation funds for State Police.

The sponsor is state Rep. Major Thibaut, (D-New Roads).