Would you pay an extra 12 cents per gallon of gas to fix Louisiana's crumbling roads? What about 15, or 20?
That's the tough question state residents and their elected officials in the Legislature have to answer. Louisiana has about $13 billion in unmet infrastructure needs, with no money in its coffers to pay for it, plus several billion more in projects needed to ease traffic and increase capacity.
The Governor's Task Force on Transportation Infrastructure Investment is charged with recommending ways to raise the money to address that issue. Members of the task force, which is due to make its recommendations by January, were in Pineville Wednesday to solicit public input.
"This is an exciting time," said Reldon Owens, the lone Central Louisiana representative on the 18-member task force. "You see that $13 billion staring you in the face, but if you pull back, we have a blank canvas here. This is an opportunity to fix transportation funding for our kids and grandkids. If you build world-class infrastructure, you get world-class talent and people."
"No one wants to pay more taxes," said Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria. "I don't want to pay more taxes. But let's take it from a common-sense approach. We need money to fix the roads. Maybe we're at a time in our history when we have to pay a higher gas tax."
"Nothing is off the table" in terms of raising revenues, task force Co-Chairman John Basilica said, including increasing fees on things such as vehicle registration, adding tolls to roads and bridges, and assessing fees based on vehicle miles traveled.
But it's clear that, at least in the short term, major funding would come from an increase in state gas taxes.
Louisiana's gas tax of 16 cents per gallon has remained unchanged for 20 years. Together with a four-cent tax approved by voters to fund the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development program, drivers pay 20 cents per gallon in state gas taxes, ninth-lowest in the nation.
That's not nearly enough to fund Louisiana's needs. The Department of Transportation and Development let $555 million in projects in fiscal year 2015-16. That is expected to rise this fiscal year, but it's still hundreds of millions of dollars short of the more than $1 billion stakeholders say the state needs.
"How do you have a program like that and maintain your competitiveness in economic development?" said task force member Ken Naquin.
In Central Louisiana, for instance, transportation funding is expected to run more than $500 million short over the next 25 years.
"That funding gets us less than halfway to what we know we need," said Matt Johns, executive director of the Rapides Area Planning Commission. "That leaves us with a half-billion dollar backlog."
"Infrastructure is king," said Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy. "It's the one place in politics where, if you do it right, Republicans and Democrats agree. Because we all need roads. We have to do this or we're going to fall further and further behind."
How much could the task force recommend gas taxes increase? The high-end estimate is 20 cents per gallon, which would give Louisiana the fifth-highest state gas taxes in the country.
Basilica said it will take "courageous voting" in the Legislature to approve a significant hike in gas taxes. Several people Wednesday said the key will be winning the public's trust that all the revenue raised will go to infrastructure, and not be siphoned off for other purposes.
"Some of this stuff gives me gas pains, but I understand the magnitude of the problem," said task force member Greg Morrison. "We live, eat and breathe by how good our infrastructure is."