June 23, 2024

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Business is my step

Push for new Baton Rouge bridge ‘a slow process;’ tolls could partially finance $1B project | State Politics

5 min read

Nearing the two-year mark, a state panel trying to find ways to build a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge has little to show publicly for its efforts.

“I think there were false expectations of what the board could do and would do in the scope of what needed to be done to advance the bridge,” said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development and one of seven members on the board.

“This is the process,” Wilson said.

How to finance the $1 billion structure remains the overarching question, as it has for years. Five sites for the location remain in the running, just as there were when the board met for the first time in February 2019. Whether a public-private partnership is feasible to help finance a new bridge is also up in the air.

“It is a slow process,” said Fred Raiford, director of transportation and drainage for East Baton Rouge Parish, one of five parishes with seats on the commission.

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“People sometimes don’t understand that,” Raiford said.

“But you have to follow that process if you want to secure federal dollars,” he said. “We are not going to make it work without those federal dollars.”

The group is called the Capital Area Road and Bridge District.

Other parishes with seats on the panel are Iberville, Ascension, Livingston and West Baton Rouge. Officials of Ascension, Livingston and West Baton Rouge parishes did not return messages for comment. Gov. John Bel Edwards has one appointee.

The board, which meets quarterly, is set to convene on Monday at 2 p.m.

Reports are scheduled from DOTD and Atlas Technical Consultants, LLC, which is gathering information and doing other preliminary work.

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The bridge has been a traffic sore spot for year in a metro area where gridlock is a near daily occurrence.

About 150,000 cars and trucks use the bridge daily.

“Baton Rouge punches above its weight class in our traffic congestion,” said Liz Smith, senior vice-president for economic competitiveness for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

“The amount of time people spend away from their families and away from their job is just absurd,” Smith said. 

“It is absolutely constraining our regional economic ability to grow,” she said. “Companies can’t move products and people fast enough to allow for that growth.”

Officials have said from the outset that a public-private partnership is one of the keys for financing a new bridge. The state would have to find a firm or firms to help pay for construction costs in exchange for a long-term revenue stream, including a profit.

Tolls are another component, which could range from $3 for passengers vehicles to $8 for heavy trucks, according to state estimates.

State officials said in 2019 that tolls could handle up to 17% of the costs.

Recent estimates have said public-private partnership and tolls could account for perhaps two-thirds of the price-tag, leaving a gap of $300 million or so.

A hike in the state gas tax – a heavy lift politically – is now being touted as a possible way to fill that last gap.

“That absolutely helps to make it happen,” said Wilson, who led an unsuccessful effort to increase the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon in 2017.

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon now, including 20 cents per gallon in state charges.

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Each penny generates about $30 million per year for the state.

A boost in the state gas tax could be used in part to pay off borrowing costs for money that helps pay for a new bridge.

“Quite frankly maybe the best way to address that would be looking at the gas tax,” said Raiford, who has filled in for Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome during some board meetings.

Contractors and others, led by former Baton Rouge state Rep. Erich Ponti, are trying to muster support for a gas tax hike during the 2021 regular legislative session. Backers envision an increase of 10 cents per gallon initially, and 22 cents eventually.

However, rounding up two-thirds support in the House and Senate – 70 and 26 votes respectively – is considered a titanic political challenge.

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Hank Grace, director of economic development for Iberville Parish, said he doubts a gas tax could win legislative approval today. “But I think it is going to have to be raising the gas tax, tolls and a private-public partnership to get this done,” Grace said. 

The sites for a new bridge range from just south of Brusly on La. Hwy. 1 to south of Plaquemine, roughly across from St. Gabriel on the east side. All five would empty eastbound traffic onto La. Hwy. 30 from just north of Gardere Lane to just north of St. Gabriel.

“It remains to be seen if the group can all come together in agreement on one specific location,” Grace said. “I feel pretty confident if you go around and ask the representatives for all the parishes involved you would get several different answers on where the bridge needs to be.”

Officials in Iberville Parish favor a location south of Plaquemine.

Another unknown is whether the push for a new bridge will lose one of its key promoters: Shawn Wilson.

The DOTD secretary, who has held the job since 2016, is considered a possibility to fill a transportation post in the Biden administration.

Smith said that, while BRAC would love to see the effort move faster, “the reality is things are moving as fast as we can.”

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“We are really excited that the district, with a partnership from DOTD, is moving the project even though there is no identified funding,” Smith said.

Whether the board is moving in the right direction is a valid question, Grace said.

“I do think that the Capital Area Road and Bridge District is making progress,” Grace said. “Unfortunately for a lot of different reasons things are moving much slower than anticipated.”   

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