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The Advocate (opinion piece published on Sunday):

  • Advocate columnist
  • Published: May 22, 2011 - Page: 7B

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Former state highway chief Kam Movassaghi recently returned from a trip to Italy bubbling with stories.

His eyes blazed with excitement last week as he described seeing the aqueducts and roads, many of which are still in use, that allowed Rome to grow into the ancient world’s superpower.

The lesson for Movassaghi, who was secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development under Republican Gov. Mike Foster is that a people’s culture, their impact on the world, even their quality of life, is intimately tied to everyday roads and bridges.

But wonders of Rome quickly gave way to stories about bumpy rides on Interstate 10 from Lafayette, where Movassaghi works as president of C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates, an engineering firm. He came to Baton Rouge last week to tout a report card he and about 50 other members of the local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a professional organization, are preparing.

The report card will be a localized version of the 2009 national report card that President Barack Obama cited during a State of the Union address that found America’s roads, rails, bridges, school buildings, sewage, levees and other infrastructure had an average grade of “D”.

Movassaghi won’t predict the grade Louisiana will receive in September when the report card is ready.

Instead, he returns to a theme familiar since his days in public service: Louisiana government and taxpayers have refused to take responsibility for improving infrastructure that already was failing to keep pace with growth more than 10 years ago.

Specifically, he points to the $12.6 billion backlog of road and bridge needs. The backlog is not a new phenomenon. To paraphrase Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s a ponderous chain” that was begun long before Movassaghi’s day, but has been added to every day since.

He argues that according to a study cited by Transportation for America, the cost of maintaining roads calculates to $2 worth of repairs on good-condition roads, versus $14 to bring the pavement back to good condition on roads where repairs have been delayed.

Recent road construction around the Baton Rouge area is chipping away at that backlog. But the work is largely funded with surplus dollars from federal hurricane recovery grants and from federal stimulus money that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and others ridiculed — but nevertheless took. Those sources are gone.

Republican state Rep. Hollis Downs, of Ruston, had pushed legislation that would have created a continuing source of revenue — under state government control — to be used on Louisiana’s roadways.

Downs was downright exuberant on the Monday he discussed his bill with the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

His measure would have increased vehicle registration fees. Louisiana has some of the cheapest fees in the nation and still would after Downs’ proposed increase. He had the backing of powerful contractors, many of whom help fund Jindal’s campaigns, and the promised support of many of his conservative colleagues.

His optimism faded quickly later that day. He said he met with Jindal and was told “no way, no how.” The next day, he withdrew the bill, amid testaments about his bravery from clearly relieved state representatives.

The House Appropriations committee last week took a bold — and for Louisiana, historic — step in defying a governor. It jettisoned a lot of Jindal’s razzle-dazzle ideas to raise money, such as privatizing some prisons and reshuffling tobacco-settlement dollars. The committee stripped that money out of next fiscal year’s spending plan and cut services to compensate.

Jindal dispatched his acolytes to bully the folks who dared to question his plan.

Speaking from the House floor House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, criticized Jindal for election-year politicking at the expense of responsibly addressing budget concerns.

Whether the rest of the House’s members — most of whom vote the way Jindal tells them — rally behind Tucker and House Appropriations Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, or dump them the way they did Downs, is the real question when House Bill 1, the budget bill, comes up for a vote later this week.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address

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