Road projects draw ire of committee
By Carrie Grace Henderson and Tryfon Boukouvidis / Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The joint Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works set the tone for what is expected to be a raucous debate in the 2017 Legislative session that opened Monday over the proposal to raise the gas tax.
The committee approved the Highway Priority Construction Program for the next fiscal year, but stripped it of its provisions that would take effect if the state came into more state or federal money.
It also accepted without debate similar reports on the state’s Port Authority, Airport Construction and Development and the Statewide Flood Control Authority. But when it came to Louisiana road projects, they much to say.
“I have some concerns about the Priority program. It’s not nearly as transparent as I think it’s supposed to be,” committee chairman Sen. Page Cortez said. “Year in and year out we’re supposed to be a rubber stamp committee.”
The committee only has the authority to remove items from the Department of Transportation’s Priority Program, and committee members questioned DOTD representatives about the transparency of the process by which projects arrive on the list.And approval doesn’t mean these projects will be fully funded, only that the Department of Transportation and Development has the authority to move forward on those projects if and when funding becomes available.
Legislation in 2015 by Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, changed that process by which items end up in the Priority Program, setting eight specific goals each project must meet. Those include safety, economic development and environmental impact.
More than 100 requests come before the Department, DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said. Those are whittled down to the five or six that are added to the prioritization program each year by teams of “unbiased professionals” while other projects move their way through the program.
But Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, questioned whether those projects were scored on each of the eight goals, saying one person may prioritize economic development over evacuation availability.
“We don’t really have any way of knowing or understanding why some projects are prioritized over others,” she said.
Rep. Keith Havard, R-Jackson, and Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, separately took issue with projects that have remained on the list for many years, and asked DOTD representatives whether someone should “purge” old projects from the list to help fund other projects.
DOTD Deputy Secretary Eric Kalivoda said projects that remain on the list for a while typically involve large amounts of money and a long term construction commitment.
“Most projects that have been on the list for a long period of time were put on there from a federal earmark, or a state bond project, or a long term project we know we don’t have money for, but are developing them anyway in case money becomes available.”