Biology senior Chris Jeanlouis has only one thought when he sees a pothole on a Louisiana roadway.
“The first thing I think is … ‘where can I swerve to get around this?’” Jeanlouis said.
Jeanlouis’ problem is all too common. In the case of many Louisiana residents, potholes are believed to be a statewide issue. State roadways are often considered to be among the worst in the nation.
A recent Reader’s Digest study found that Louisiana’s roadways rank as the worst in the nation. A study from U.S. News and World Report ranked the state’s infrastructure as the 44th-best in the nation. The issues associated with the state’s roadways affect residents in a number of ways.
Nobody likes potholes, but in Jeanlouis’ case, the hatred stems from a painful memory. The lifelong resident of New Iberia said his worst run-in with a pothole occurred in November 2016, less than two weeks after becoming the owner of a 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK 500.
While making a routine crossing of the railroad track at the intersection of Brightside Drive and Nicholson Drive, Jeanlouis’ car scraped the track, leaving a section of the vehicle’s bottom panel hanging. Later, while driving to a friend’s house down Burbank Drive, he hit a pothole that completely tore off the hanging portion.
“I looked in my rearview mirror and thought, ‘Oh, that happened?’” Jeanlouis said.
The 23-year-old is used to dealing with problematic roadways. He said the main road leading to his house was narrow all his life, and even though a small shoulder was added to the road, a valley eventually formed between the road and the shoulder, creating bumps and potholes. He said that outside of newer areas such as Broussard and Livingston, roads in the Acadiana area are a “chronic” problem.
Kinesiology sophomore Alyssa Kaigler is a Louisiana resident with a worldly perspective. The 19-year-old was born in Japan and has lived in four different states. Kaigler lives off of Dodson Avenue, a road she said is a burden her car regularly bears.
“It’s really taxing on my car,” Kaigler said.
While potholes and bumpy roads aren’t new to Kaigler, the differences in her eyes are the care the roads receive and the mentality of those who drive on them. She said that during her time in Washington, D.C. and Virginia Beach, she noticed a healthy number of potholes, but both cities were good about filling them in. But in her opinion, to find truly exceptional roads, one needs to look to other countries.
“The roads in Japan are the best,” Kaigler said. “They’re the narrowest, but people in Japan are the best drivers.”
After moving to Louisiana in July 2014, Kaigler has spent her time between Houma and Baton Rouge. To her, Houma’s smaller area lends itself to having better roads, while Baton Rouge’s much larger size factors into poorer quality roads in many areas of town.
The sophomore said that Dodson’s litany of potholes “sucks” to deal with, a problem magnified by the fact that the road is barely wide enough to service one car at a time. She said it’s difficult to see roads like Parker Boulevard and Lee Drive receive smooth new lanes while Dodson rarely receives temporary patches to fill the potholes.
Kaigler isn’t alone in her frustration with Louisiana’s roadways. A recent non-random survey of 100 Louisiana residents found that only one respondent rated roadways in the state above “average.” Asked to rate state roadways on a scale of “very below average” to “very above average,” nearly 85 percent of respondents selected a rating below “average.”
Seventy survey respondents selected Interstate highways such as I-10 or I-12 as the best-maintained roadways in the state, while only three selected state highways such as LA 30 in Baton Rouge or LA 182 in Houma. Conversely, 55 percent consider state highways to be the worst-maintained roadways in the state compared with only six percent who said Interstate highways were the worst.
Eighty percent of survey respondents said they do not believe driving in Louisiana is a pleasant experience. 64 percent said the state’s roadways are not safe. Distracted drivers were ranked as the greatest roadway threat, followed by drunk drivers, roadway conditions — such as potholes — and finally roadway environment factors, such as lighting and speed limits.
Fifty-six percent of survey respondents said they believe the first step to improving roadway safety in Louisiana is improving existing roads, while 18 percent said they believe constructing new roads in areas of high congestion would be a good first step.
Mass communication sophomore Olivia Rackley said she believes Louisiana’s network of roadways is unsafe. A native of Destin, Forida, she cited rough patches and potholes as just a couple of a number of problems the state’s roads face.
“Flooding around the uneven road surfaces have caused engine issues to many cars,” Rackley said, “With all of the frequent blockages, traffic gets heavy. People don’t pay attention and accidents are more likely to occur.”
Rackley said in her mind, a potential first step the state could take toward improving roadway safety would be to take on more overnight construction projects in favor of those that take place during the day. She said that while the addition of lights and round-the-clock workers would be costly, she believes the jobs could be completed quicker and safer with fewer people on the road.
Rackley said she believes the wear and tear on Louisiana’s roadways are “a hazard to every car.” In the short time since she moved to Louisiana, she’s had to get her tires realigned six times. Her overarching opinion on the roads can be summarized succinctly.
“The roadways in Louisiana are terrible,” Rackley said.
Rackley said she believes the LADOTD does not have the requisite support to improve the state’s network of roadways. She said the problem is urgent and needs to be addressed.
“It’s been overlooked for years now, and I haven’t seen much improvement at all,” Rackley said.
According to public records, the LADOTD only saw a four percent increase in its final budget from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2017, a year that saw the department’s final budget come in at just over $610 million. Federal funding in particular saw a 9.9 percent year-over-year increase.
Mass communication professor Robert Mann said federal funding levels for the LADOTD are not up to par for the job the department faces on a daily basis. Mann, the Douglas Manship Chair at LSU, said that improvement has occurred in some areas, but problems have persisted for far too long in other cases.
“There’s no doubt they don’t have nearly the money to do what they need to do,” Mann said.
Mann said one area that’s seen marked improvement is the ease of traveling from Baton Rouge to other major cities around Louisiana. What used to be a five to six hour trip to Monroe, Ruston and other cities in northern Louisiana on a two-lane road, he said, is now a sub-four hour journey on a four-lane highway.
On the other side is the deteriorating network of bridges and smaller, rural roads across Louisiana, Mann said. He said he believes neglect has been a key component in the overall degradation of roadways in the state.
“None of these things are built to last forever,” Mann said. “They have a half-life.”
Mann said he believes the consequences of poor roadways go far beyond the depreciation of cars and an extra safety hazard. He said higher insurance rates as a result of the punishment cars take, a lack of LADOTD funding to undertake new construction projects and a missed opportunity to raise gas taxes when fuel prices were at record lows a decade ago have all played a role in the condition of roads today.
Mann said that beyond the condition of the roads today, the sins of inaction will come back around to hurt future generations.
“We just haven’t taken care of our business,” Mann said. “If we didn’t have the political will then, it’s hard to imagine when we ever will.”
The consequences of poor state roadways go beyond heightened levels of frustration, popped tires and potholes. A 2010 report from The Road Information Project found that roadways cost the average driver in Baton Rouge an extra $1,052 per year in various repairs and unforeseen maintenance costs.
At the center of the public storm is LADOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson. An executive in the department for more than 13 years, Wilson said the nearly 16,000 miles worth of roadways in Louisiana creates a conundrum his staff has to figure out how best to manage.
Wilson said safety is the department’s top priority, trumping many other decisions they make. The dollars the department spends on safety measures is “much more proactive than reactive,” he said.
One of the federal government’s requirements the LADOTD must meet is the existence of a preservation program. Wilson said that it makes sense, then, that the department takes care of existing roads before undertaking any new construction projects.
“You can’t just go to Walmart and get a new bridge, a new road,” Wilson said.
Wilson said the LADOTD’s budget, as with other departments, is driven by tax money. He said gas tax is the department’s only source of revenue.
Louisiana’s 16 cent per gallon gas tax, instituted in 1990, is only worth about seven cents to the department due to inflation. Wilson said 47 states have raised their gas taxes since 1990, 30 of which have raised their taxes since 2012.
State residents and legislators alike have searched, often to no avail, for various other methods to help the LADOTD fund a transportation needs backlog that totals in the billions. A constitutional amendment to create an infrastructure bank failed in a 2014 election. The state’s Transportation Trust Fund often sees funding diverted to other projects, chief among them being state police operations.
Secretary Wilson said the larger, different population of vehicles on the state’s roadways has presented another unique challenge the department must work to overcome. Louisiana boasts approximately 12,900 bridges, 3,000 of which are at least 50 years old. Wilson said the older bridges and roads in the state were not built for the number, weight and frequency of vehicles driven today.
Wilson also cited population growth as an extra variable the LADOTD must consider when deciding where to spend its money. He said there are more cars per household than there were 50 years ago, and that only about 10 states have fewer miles of roadways with more people to service than Louisiana.
The divide on roadway quality and safety in Louisiana is one that runs deep. On one side are residents like Chris Jeanlouis, Alyssa Kaigler and Olivia Rackley, all of whom have felt the impact of the state’s depreciated roadways in the form of vehicular damage. On the other side is Secretary Shawn Wilson and the rest of the LADOTD, a department that many believe does not have enough resources to tend to the thousands of miles of roadways in its jurisdiction.
While there are many differences, one commonality the two sides share is the heavy economic consequences the roadways carry. Mann said that in order for the LADOTD to do anything to improve roadway quality and safety, it will have to spend money it currently doesn’t have.
“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Mann said.
Editor’s Note: Olivia Rackley is an employee of Tiger TV in the Office of Student Media.