Ward pushes permanent use of 0.45-cent tax for road work

Staff Report

State Sen. Rick Ward is at the forefront of legislation that could bring additional help to road improvement projects across Louisiana.

Permanent use of the 0.45-cent sales tax lawmakers approved in 2018 to stabilize the budget would create the additional funding for much-needed road improvements, said Ward, R-Port Allen.

State Sen. Rick Ward

Final approval of the bill was pending this week as state lawmakers head to the final stretch of the 2021 Regular Legislature.

One piece of the bill would funnel an additional $100 million to maintenance and repairs.

“Particularly for rural areas I represent, that would be huge because it would allow a lot of much-needed work on small bridges and old roads,” he told The Banner.

“It could be a really good shot in the arm and speed up the process.”

His proposal comes to lawmakers as the state Department of Transportation and Development faces a roadwork backlog of $14 billion.  

Road repairs continue to mount across the state as the value of the fuel tax dwindles.

Louisiana’s fuel tax has remained at 38.4 cents per gallon since 1987, but the rate of inflation has diminished its value.

Louisiana has the seventh lowest gasoline tax in the nation. Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi have raised their taxes during the past two years.

“When you look at our infrastructure as a whole, it’s dreadfully underfunded,” Ward said. “The gas tax passed in the 1980s is worth 39 percent in terms of dollar value from what it was when it was passed.”

The increased use of hybrids and electric cars throw a curveball into the gas tax, he said last week.

Ward said he would favor an annual fee or tax for electric and hybrid vehicles to ensure a level playing field on road taxes.

“As it is now, they’re driving the roads for free, so there has to be a way to level the playing field,” Ward said.

The tax revenue would go toward construction of roads.

“None of the other states have gone longer than us without investing new revenue of some kind for roads,” he said.

Plans for a new Mississippi River bridge from Baton Rouge to either West Baton Rouge Parish or Iberville Parish would be in the plan with the sales tax revenue, Ward said.

Although it would be a state project, it must go through the same preliminary work as a federally funded road.

“It’s a double issue in that any time you deal with crossing the Mississippi River, there are permits you have to get, regardless of the funds,” he said. 

The proposal comes during a session in which lawmakers already have agreed on a $43 billion spending plan that takes effect July 1.

Ward said his proposal has drawn positive feedback from constituents.

“When you say we’ve fixed our budget, and no longer running massive deficits, now what we want to do is start a new commitment in 2025 to rebuild roads,” he said. “I think that is something people want to see us do.

“The quality of our roads and the traffic is costing us, as an entire state population, about $7.5 billion a year between maintenance on vehicles, time lost and time spent sitting in traffic,” Ward said.

“That’s not going to get us anywhere.” Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, who has been outspoken in the need for a new Mississippi River Bridge to ease traffic congestion in the Baton Rouge Metro Region, endorsed Ward’s plan.

“I’m for that, whether it’s a bridge or whatever it may be to assure the public this is used for transportation and not to offset anything else,” Ourso said. “Whether or not it passes, I don’t know but it’s a good start. It’s not something they’re already not paying for, and .45 is not a whole hell of a lot of money, but it is their money and it would tackle a $14 billion backlog.”