13 May 2009

So, how will they fund I-49 South?

The Advocate (Acadiana Bureau) - I-49 task force debates funding

It's about time people started to try to figure out how to fund the thing, you know. So far, it's looking like tolls could be on the table. (Gack.) Obviously, there's also a need to obtain more support from the Legislature and Congress, to push the corridor as more of a priority.

First things first - tolls won't work. Ever. Not in Acadiana. The traffic volumes might be worth an Interstate, but they'll never support a toll road, especially in a part of the state that has none currently. The locals and the sugarcane farmers hate the idea of tolls. Tolling would be a non-starter. They could exempt some traffic from the tolls, but then that defeats the purpose of tolling the thing in the first place... especially if they exempt agricultural vehicles.

Still, they're considering multiple options. Good for them - you can't count on anything as a sole way to fund a project as huge as the I-49 southern extension.

Another option floated by the task force would be special tax districts along the corridor and an extra tax on gasoline along the route. I see many potholes in that approach. The most significant is that the "special tax district" would have to be statewide, otherwise people would start to dodge it by fueling in jurisdictions outside the tax district. I know I would. I don't know about you, but I can make it from Lafayette to New Orleans via the current US 90 corridor on about half a tank, and that's in an early 90's midsize Buick. My Civic could make the trip on less. That means I can gas up in Lake Charles, Alexandria, Baton Rouge or Slidell and dodge fueling on the corridor entirely. (Either that, or I could take I-10.)

Oops, I said that out loud. That's another problem with any usage- or consumption-based tax along the corridor, that being that I-10 is shorter, and in conjunction with I-12 is shorter still. With many tollways, you can get traffic that is simply aiming to go through the tolled route as well as the traffic that has to actually go somewhere along the toll road, and the other options suck as far as traffic or expediency goes. (See: Pennsylvania Turnpike.) The fact that Future I-49 is already bypassed by a superior routing for traffic bound for points east and west means that you don't get that traffic that would be going to/from, say, Houston or Biloxi (unless they originate/end locally), and therefore you can't get toll money from them.

And even then, there's a (State) Constitutional ban that stops local entities from levying a gasoline tax. It'd take legislative action to override that problem, and the Legislature's never liked local-option gas taxes. That sure as hell ain't changing with Guv'nuh Bobby "No Taxes EVAR!!1" Jindal pulling the strings.

These are all inventive options, mind you, but the old standby is still out there: state and federal funding. It's how we normally make Interstates around here. The only problem with that option currently is that the state is damn near broke, considering all the cuts the Governor is saying we need to make to state programs. The Feds ain't in much better shape, multiple stimuli and bailouts on demand aside.

All that said, work is still proceeding slowly along the corridor. Several overpasses built in St. Mary and Iberia Parishes over the past decade are bringing the corridor closer to Interstate standards. An overpass is currently being built at LA 675 in Iberia Parish, and stim funding is paying for an interchange to be built elsewhere in Iberia. The governor's proposed putting about $10 million in the budget for another overpass in St. Mary. These areas aren't the real hangup - the real hangup that I've seen so far from traveling the highway would be the area from Raceland east to about Marrero, covering Des Allemands, Paradis, Boutte and other places along that routing. Some of it is so cramped, bypassing part of the route may be inevitable - which will definitely make the state coffers bleed as a lot of it would need to be elevated.

In all, progress is slow on the Future Interstate. It's going to take time. Middle ground must be found - not only a source of funding, but a good source of funding that will fit the circumstances of the routing itself.


Anthony Kennerson said...

Of course, I just have to get in on this.

First off...on the possibility of tolling Future I-49 South (oh, and memo to the Advocate writers: THE "S" IS CAPPED!! Do we refer to your flagship university as Louisiana State "university"?!?!?!): I've been opposed to tolling "free" highways from the very beginning, because I still believe that this corridor is important enough to deserve federal and state funding done the traditional way.

On the other hand, though, if tolling some sections of the highway does contribute to completing it sooner, then I can swallow some pride and support limited tolling of the newer segments (including the Raceland to New Orleans segment and the portion from just south of Lafayette to near New Iberia, provided that the latter is rebuilt along the lines of the Texas-style tollways with one-way free access/service roads abetting the toll mainlanes for local access. The former segment mostly bypasses US 90 anyway from Raceland to Boutte, and would create a new connection with I-310 rather than use the existing terminus with US 90, so there would still be a free alternative existing.

As for the remaining segments of Future I-49 South (including the segment through Lafayette and the Wax Lake to Berwick segment through Patterson and Bayou Vista), as well as the upgraded sections of existing US 90 between Lafayette and Baldwin): well, those segments should be completed as free highways since it would be next to impossible to toll those sections....and there would be a firestorm if tolls were introduced to those segments, anyway, since they were originally completed as freeways to begin with.

Overall, though, I would favor using a combination of an increased gas tax and some kind of levy on revenue from offshore oil drilling to provide the state match, and then use that to leverage the Feds into supporting the rest.

Actually, my dream proposal would be kinda of a "LA Freeway 21") proposed gas tax package similar to the TIMED proposed tax that is currently funding the four-laning of most of LA's major highways (and which funded the Morgan City to Raceland portion of US 90/Future I-49 South to begin with) that would be used to fund not only I-49 South, but other needed roadway improvements such as completing I-49 North through Shreveport (that would include filling the current gap between I-20 and I-220), LA's portion of I-69, widening I-10, I-12, and I-20 throughout the state to at least 6 lanes, and possibly even building a freeway/tollway using the US 165 corridor between Lake Charles and Monroe through Alexandria.

Of course, given the anti-tax mood currently prevailing in this state (no thanks to Bo Jindal, who probably is too smitten by his next door neighbor Goodhair Perry and his "Trans-Texas Corridor" fantasies of toll roads ribboning the state and his 2012 POTUS ambitions to actually care about adequately funding our infrastructure), it's all probably just a pipe dream. I'd gladly settle for finishing I-49 through Lafayette and getting US 90 upgraded to Morgan City as a start, then getting the Westbank Expressway fully elevated to US 90 (possibly signed as I-910 as in internim until the rest of I-49 South funding is resolved.


Taralyn said...

Doing it akin to the Texas-style tollways would be a lot more palatable than just having a tollway, or having Old 90 as the only alternative through route in those areas. (Hell, do something like the Sam Houston - sign the tollway as I-49, and the free "feeders" as US 90.)