Lafayette can’t afford the way it’s growing

Everyone knows Lafayette’s roads are terrible. That’s especially not news for LCG Public Works Director Mark Dubroc. “We know that we have very bad roads,” he said at a council meeting this month, trying to explain a tough situation to an irate resident.

Dubroc was responding to Russ Stelly, a parish resident who spoke emotionally as an emissary from his subdivision, Frenchman’s Creek, sharing the hazards of bad roads: bike spills and twisted ankles, tire blowouts and busted wheel alignments.

Stelly, an avid runner, was himself injured among the “holes and hills” of his subdivision, cut so severely that he required stitches. He said he’s still receiving ongoing medical care from lingering injuries, and facing the very real possibility he may never jog again.

There was no dispute in the chamber as to the seriousness of the situation. Nor was there any assurance that his roads would ever get fixed.

And the reason is simple: The parish can’t afford to fix its roads.

When bad roads aren’t bad enough

The Dubroc/Stelly exchange reveals the key quagmire for parish infrastructure. LCG can’t keep up with rising maintenance costs, which grow year after year.

The condition of parish roads in unincorporated Lafayette and the city are surveyed every two years and graded on a five-point scale. A “five” is a new road. A “one” needs to be totally reconstructed. Stelly’s neighborhood merited a “two.”

Here’s the thing: There’s a backlog of $33 million worth of work that’s needed just on roads rated “one” or “two” in unincorporated Lafayette, where Stelly’s subdivision is located. Add another $20 million for roads rated “three,” the middle of the pack. Together that’s $53 million in backlogged road maintenance.

Yet, this year there was only $2.5 million in the budget to do this work across all of unincorporated Lafayette. That means even if you could magically stop roads from getting any worse — which you can’t — it would still take more than 20 years before all these repairs could be done at the current rate.

And the situation’s not much better in the city of Lafayette, where there’s more than $40 million in road maintenance needed with only $4 million per year in the budget. In total, Dubroc estimates there’s a backlog of $93 million to $95 million worth of urgent roadwork between the city and unincorporated Lafayette, yet there’s only $6.5 million available in the budget each year.

So as bad as the roads in Frenchman’s Creek undoubtedly are, the parish can’t afford to fix them because there’s not enough money, and other roads are in worse condition.

How’d we get into this mess in the first place?

The plight of Russ Stelly and Frenchman’s Creek offers an unfortunate illustration of a serious problem.

During his remarks at the council meeting, Stelly said his wife had done the math and found that from 2016 through 2018 his subdivision had paid more than $1 million in parish property taxes. Dubroc estimated the cost of fixing the roads in Stelly’s subdivision at $75,000, which at first glance seems manageable given the annual revenue the neighborhood generates. But the plot thickens when you break those numbers down.

First we need to divide that million dollars by three since only about a third of parish property taxes goes to LCG. The rest funds the school system, the sheriff’s office and a variety of other smaller parish agencies. That leaves us with roughly $333,000 paid over three years to LCG in parish property taxes — or $111,000 paid per year — by the 320 people who own property in this subdivision.

Out of the $60 million that LCG collects in parish property taxes from a variety of millages, most of which are dedicated, only $2.5 million is budgeted from the road maintenance millage to pay for road work in unincorporated Lafayette, or just over 4%. That means that out of the $111,000 that’s paid per year by Stelly’s subdivision in parish property taxes to LCG, less than $5,000 is dedicated to roads.

Even if you were to allocate the neighborhood’s share of maintenance entirely to its own roads — to be sure, property taxes don’t work that way — it would take more than 16 years to generate enough revenue to cover the cost of fixing the current condition of the roads.

So put another way, when LCG agreed to accept responsibility for the perpetual maintenance of the roads in Stelly’s subdivision, consolidated government took on a liability that costs way more to maintain than it generates in tax revenue.

Now take this reality and multiply it by every subdivision in the parish that’s been built in the last 25 years, then combine that with a dedicated road millage that doesn’t collect enough money anyway, and voila! That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you end up with a $100 million backlog of deferred road maintenance and no way to pay for it.

So what do we do from here?

There are no easy options. Every spare dollar in the parish’s budget — of which there are few — is arguably needed for drainage. And given the magnitude of the challenges there, that reality isn’t likely to change for the foreseeable future.

We can and should try to secure as much money from the state and federal government as we can, but that’s easier said than done.

Approximately $7 million worth of work to fix the worst roads in unincorporated Lafayette was included in a funding request to the Metropolitan Planning Organization — a regional transportation planning agency that passes through federal dollars to local projects — and approved in 2014, but the money still hasn’t been deployed due to continued delays with DOTD, according to Dubroc.

Our state legislative delegation secured $24 million in capital outlay this session for new projects, most of which aren’t roads, and this was the first time in years that the state had any serious money to give. The delegation also snagged $150 million to expand I-49 South, but that was one-time money from the BP oil spill.

Raising taxes appears to be a political non-starter. It thus seems unlikely that a new mayor-president and parish council will have much appetite for testing a politically toxic idea.

Barring money falling from the sky, our roads are going to be stuck in a dismal status quo, where every year a few roads get fixed while more and more fall into disrepair, threatening the health of our fellow citizens.

And that status quo is slated to get even worse if we do nothing. There is a backlog of more than 70 subdivisions waiting to be approved for perpetual maintenance of their roads, according to Dubroc. Plus there continue to be more and more subdivisions built every year.

What this all means is that not only are we in a hole with no way out, but we’re digging ourselves deeper and deeper with every new road LCG takes responsibility for, spreading those limited funds for road maintenance thinner and thinner.

In a sense, the only fiscally responsible fix is to curtail development, likely a political nonstarter in its own right. Growing denser through infill development — a solution offered in Lafayette’s comprehensive plan — is tough to do when the market resists it.

So that leaves us stuck, with roads crumbling underfoot. A fix will likely require an act of unusual political willpower. Meanwhile, the potholes in Frenchman’s Creek are only getting bigger.