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DOTD looking at funds options

Higher gas taxes, tolls, fees discussed

Capitol news bureau

State officials have begun talks on ways to raise new dollars to improve Louisiana roads and bridges, Transportation Secretary Johnny Bradberry said Wednesday.

Options include higher gasoline taxes, tolls, fees, permits and private/public partnerships, Bradberry said after a 20-minute speech to the Rotary Club of Baton Rouge.

"There are a whole array of things we are going to be looking at," he said. "We are starting to look at options on what we can do, what we can present to the governor on options for moving us forward."

Bradberry's comments on finding more dollars for roads and bridges were a response to questions from reporters. His address to the club was devoted almost exclusively to his wide-ranging efforts to make the department more efficient.

How much department officials might seek and when is too soon to tell, Bradberry said.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] The state has a backlog of about $11 billion worth of highway needs. Kam Movassaghi, who preceded Bradberry as state transportation chief, used to say that the state needed to spend at least $200 million more per year to make a dent in state highway needs.

Bradberry said he does not have a figure in mind.

"But you can do the math," he said. "If I had another $200 million today to put into this thing and applied that $200 million to the backlog, how long would it take to address the backlog? 50 years. We are not talking peanuts here."

He added later, "When we do this, we are going to need to be impactful, and we are going to need to be able to tell the people in five years that this was enough to be doing us some good."

Asked if an extra $200 million per year is the minimum officials would consider seeking, Bradberry said, "That is hard to say. It would seem to be that $200 million is the place to start."

The issue of a tax increase for highways and bridges never seriously surfaced during the legislative session that ended last month.

Bradberry has repeatedly said he wants his agency to improve its operation and public image before seeking more money. The theory is that a highway department that inspires public confidence is more likely to win public support for additional dollars.

"What I am trying to do is create leverage," Bradberry told the Rotary Club. "We need more money."

A tax increase for highways could only be considered next year during a special session. Gov. Kathleen Blanco has said she hopes to win a pay raise for public school teachers, without a tax increase, during a special session in early 2006, possibly January.

Motorists pay state and federal taxes of 38.4 cents a gallon. The federal portion is 18.4 cents a gallon. The state portion is 20 cents a gallon. Four cents of that 20 cents is designated solely for 16 road and bridge projects voters authorized in 1989.

Bradberry, who worked for ConocoPhillips for 27 years, has held his state post for about 16 months. He said most of his focus has been on improving an agency with a wide range of problems.

The department has about 5,000 employees and spends $2.1 billion per year. In 2003-04, he said, less than one half of 1 percent of the agency's workers said they needed job improvements.

Bradberry said 65 percent of the workforce said it did outstanding or excellent work. But a common public view of the agency, he said, is seeing four employees at a work site but only one doing any work.

"We've got a poor public image," the DOTD secretary said.

Bradberry said the department is putting into place some of a dozen changes in operations suggested by the first wave of assessments he initiated. Still more will be implemented in the next 18 months.

"Serious change has to take place and is taking place at the department," he said. "We are making improvements. Still a lot of problems to solve. We are getting there."

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