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State considers emulating Texas road-funding system

Baton Rouge Advocate | April 6, 2005
By KEVIN BLANCHARD

LAFAYETTE -- State legislators are working to copy a system of funding toll roads that has raised $6 billion in Texas, though they have not decided where to find the increased revenue.

The revenue would be used as matching funds for urban area toll roads, such as the proposed Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway, Rep. Don Trahan, R-Lafayette, said Tuesday at a meeting of the commission that's studying the expressway idea.

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The Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway is expected to cost up to $740 million, depending on which route is chosen.

Consultants from HNTB Corp. and former Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Kam Movassaghi have told the commission that no toll roads can ever be built without some amount of seed money from elsewhere.

Movassaghi told the commission a couple of months ago about the Texas Mobility Fund. State legislators there raised fines for impaired drivers and other moving violations.

Using that pot of new, recurring revenue, Texas issued $6 billion in bonds. If a local entity can come up with 50 percent of the cost of a toll road, then the state uses the mobility fund for the rest.

Those funds are driving a large number of toll road projects in urban areas, such as Austin, Movassaghi said.

Trahan said he is working with state Rep. William Daniel, D-Baton Rouge -- vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee -- to put together a similar program for Louisiana.

Trahan said that no decision has been made on where the new source of revenue might come from for Louisiana's Mobility Fund.

When Movassaghi addressed the possibility of using increased truck registrations fees -- among the lowest in the nation -- Trahan said such a plan would only garner support from the truckers if the money was dedicated to roads only.

Also, current fees head into the state's general fund, so shifting any of the entire fee into a new program would cause a $40 million hole in the state's budget, Movassaghi said.

Trahan said he plans to advise fellow legislators that a new mobility fund would be a way for urban areas to catch up with the progress that rural areas have made with the TIMED program.

The TIMED program used an increase in the state's gasoline tax to bond money to build or expand roads, mostly in rural areas.

The Mobility Fund would, in turn, benefit urban areas -- where traffic counts would be high enough to make a toll road, supported by state money, feasible, Trahan said.

Many state urban areas -- Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Lafayette and Shreveport -- have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of "megaprojects" listed on the state's long-term transportation plan, Trahan said.

Some of those megaprojects -- such as the proposed Baton Rouge north bypass, the Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway, and the Interstate 49 North and South -- could possibly qualify as toll projects under the Mobility Fund.

The huge cost of those projects, coupled with the dwindling amount of state money available for new roads, means that -- barring a new plan -- nothing will be built in "years and years and years, if ever," Trahan said.

Trahan said he could not support another gasoline tax increase, but there are other areas where money could be found. Bills must be prefiled by April 15 for the upcoming legislative session.

In other business Tuesday, the commission approved expanding its contract with HNTB Corp. to look at a few more study corridors for the expressway.

Commission Chairman Mickey Mangham said those routes include a new route farther to the southwest -- which would pass through a small portion of Vermilion Parish -- and shifting an existing study route so that it no longer travels down the planned route for Ambassador Caffery South.

The commission is also asking HNTB to look at the feasibility of building a portion of the proposed I-49 South as a toll road.

Mangham said the commission decided to have the consultants look at that I-49 route, to rule it in or out.

The results need to be in soon, because should the commission think a road that dips into other parishes would be more feasible, it will have to ask the Legislature for permission to build outside Lafayette Parish, where it is required to stay by state law.

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