Frustration boils over about Louisiana road and bridge work

Louisiana News

Road construction works with roller compactor machine and asphalt finisher.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As Louisiana readies for an infusion of federal infrastructure cash, a powerful state senator Friday said he’s so dissatisfied with the state transportation department’s handling of road and bridge money that he’s ready to “blow it up and start over.”

Republican Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White, of Central, slammed the agency’s performance repeatedly, singling out specific road projects that he said have been on the drawing board for years and have moved too slowly even when they get financing.

White said he wants lawmakers to look at restructuring the Department of Transportation and Development, known as DOTD.

“You’re just dysfunctional,” White told DOTD Deputy Secretary Eric Kalivoda during a meeting of the Legislature’s joint House and Senate budget committee.

White added: “When I get into a system that doesn’t work, the only thing I know to do is blow it up and start over.”

Lawmakers have sought to steer significantly more money to transportation projects in recent years, but have gotten frustrated with the pace of construction.

The committee was reviewing the list of projects splitting $563 million in federal pandemic aid that lawmakers set aside to pay for road and bridge work and discussing the money Louisiana is in line to receive from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package recently passed by Congress. Lawmakers also have set aside hundreds of millions in oil spill recovery money for transportation.

Republican Rep. Barry Ivey, who lives in the same area as White, said people are skeptical that DOTD will move swiftly and effectively to spend all the cash being sent its way.

“My constituents don’t trust y’all to get it done,” Ivey said.

Several lawmakers, mostly Republicans, criticized the agency as too laden with bureaucracy and too politicized in the selection of projects.

Kalivoda replied that only 5% of the department’s budget covers administrative costs, and he said many of the projects that lawmakers criticized as politicized either were selected by legislators themselves or involved decisions made by the governor, not the department.

White was the most severe in his complaints, saying legislative leaders want to do a “major renovation” of the agency.

“You don’t get anything done with the money we give you. It takes forever,” he told Kalivoda.

Louisiana has a $15 billion backlog of road and bridge repairs and a $15 billion wish list of new bridges, interstate widenings and other highway projects aimed at addressing traffic problems.

White dismissed as “chump change” the new money Louisiana is expected to receive for roads and bridges from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill championed by President Joe Biden and negotiated with input from Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican.

Kalivoda noted that of the $6 billion Louisiana is guaranteed to receive for highway and bridge work over the next five years, the state was expecting to receive $4.8 billion of that already through the traditional federal highway financing formula.

But he also pointed out that Louisiana will be able to compete for billions of dollars in other competitive grant programs that will be available.

Outside of road and bridge money, the federal infrastructure bill will send dollars to Louisiana for public transit, airports, broadband improvements, water system upgrades, coastal storm risk management and more.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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