Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Column: If we want to fix Lafayette’s roads, we must stop building new ones

Lafayette’s roads suck. Our pavement is cracked, crumbling and potholed, which adds wear and tear to our vehicles and puts the lives of anyone who rides on two wheels at risk, including yours truly. It’s gotten so bad out there that in order to safely ride my scooter I’ve had to memorize where some of the worst potholes are so I can change lanes to avoid bone-jarring experiences.

As it stands today, there seems to be little hope to remedy this situation. Lafayette Consolidated Government faces a backlog of more than $90 million worth of roadwork. But LCG spends only around $6.5 million per year from the millages dedicated to roads to get this work done. The result? Lafayette’s roads are in a bad situation that’s getting worse.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Contrary to popular belief, there actually is money available to make progress toward fixing our roads. To make it work, though, we have to change our priorities from paving new roads to maintaining what we already have. 

City-Owned Roads

The city of Lafayette has become the poster child for what happens when new road improvements are prioritized over maintenance. The upshot is we have the resources to change it. It starts with changing the way we plan capital spending. 

LCG pays for major capital projects either by direct use of available sales taxes, called “pay as you go” capital, or by taking on debt by selling bonds. The capital budget is planned in five-year chunks, with projected debt and pay-as-you-go spending outlined. 

Of LCG’s $90 million-plus backlog of roadwork, $40 million is for city-owned roads. Yet when we look at the city’s five-year capital outlay budget for roads, we find a large proportion of new road improvement projects on the books:

RoadTotal Capital Budgeted 
University Corridor Initiative$23 million
W. Willow St. Widening$9.25 million
Rue de Belier Extension Phase 2$5.15 million
Duhon Road Widening$3 million
Bluebird Drive Extension/Widening$2.25 million
Frem Boustany Extension/Vincent Road$1.75 million
Total$44.4 million

So if the city were to either kill or defer these new road improvement projects, it would free up enough money in the capital outlay budget to zero out the city’s roadwork backlog over the next few years. It’s that simple. Really. The only limiting factor is that politicians tend to prioritize big new projects they can cut ribbons on, rather than prioritizing the less flashy work of filling potholes and repaving roads. 

This is fundamentally about opportunity cost. We only have a finite amount of money to spend, so every dollar we spend improving a road is a dollar we can’t spend fixing a bad road. 

In other words, the city has the financial capacity to clear out its backlog of roadwork. But it has to make doing so a priority. 

Parish-Owned Roads

The parish of Lafayette faces greater challenges given its lack of funding, but the opportunities there are similar. 

Of LCG’s $90 million plus backlog of roadwork, more than $50 million is for parish-owned roads, which are in unincorporated Lafayette. But of the $6.5 million in annual budget available for road work, only $2.5 million is spent on the parish. So the parish has a bigger backlog than the city with less dedicated revenue to pay for it.

Making matters worse, in the next four years of the parish’s five-year capital outlay budget, the budget for any kind of roadwork — fixing existing roads or building new ones — is, quite literally, $0. That’s because the parish doesn’t have any taxes dedicated to capital for pay-as-you-go projects or to sell bonds like the city, and the parish’s general fund is stretched beyond the breaking point. 

But that doesn’t mean there’s no more money available for parish roads, as there is funding that comes available on a semi-regular basis from the state and federal government, either through capital outlay requests to the state or through the Acadiana Planning Commission.

Yet here again we run into the common practice of prioritizing new road improvements over fixing existing roads. For example, here are the two major road projects LCG included in its state capital outlay request last year:

RoadTotal Capital Budget
University Corridor Initiative$13 million
Kaliste Saloom Widening$10.8 million
Total$23.8 million

That’s $23.8 million budgeted to be spent on building new road capacity. Even though these projects exist largely in the city, LCG could have requested these dollars be used to clear out almost half of the parish’s road work backlog. Instead we find ourselves prioritizing limited capital dollars on new road improvements instead of fixing our existing roads.

State-Owned Roads

The state plays another important role. Some of Lafayette’s most important and pockmarked roads are actually owned by the state, like Johnston Street and Pinhook Road.

Here again, when we look into the budget, we find opportunities to solve problems if only we were able to prioritize fixing existing roads vs. building new ones. 

While the state has a $14 billion infrastructure maintenance backlog, in last year’s budget lawmakers included hundreds of millions of dollars for new infrastructure projects — including $150 million to continue inching U.S. Highway 90 closer to matching I-49’s interstate standards.

While not all of that money is slated to be spent in Lafayette Parish, there are projects that may be included, like building a new overpass at Highway 90 and Ambassador Caffery in anticipation of Highway 90 eventually becoming a part of I-49.

So we’re looking at spending tens of millions of dollars to build new road capacity that could instead be invested in fixing that damn pothole on Pinhook near College Road that’s nearly killed me on my Vespa.

If there’s a will, there’s a way

What’s holding back progress on Lafayette’s roads isn’t a lack of budget; it’s a lack of will. These capital budgets are a reflection of local priorities. And historically we’ve chosen to prioritize our limited public dollars on building new infrastructure.

To some degree that’s understandable. The politics of cutting ribbons is powerful. And each of the aforementioned new road projects comes with the promise of economic growth and traffic relief.

But if we ever want to fix our roads, we’re going to have to change our political priorities. We can no longer afford to ignore infrastructure that’s falling apart.

Fortunately, we have solutions staring us right in the face. If we can muster the political will, there’s a way to start making progress.