When Gov. John Bel Edwards and state transportation secretary Shawn Wilson announced Monday that the state is getting $216 million in transportation aid from one of the federal COVID-relief bills passed last year, they named several infrastructure projects that will benefit from the unexpected windfall.
Among them: $50 million for a stretch of Interstate 49 near Lafayette and $29 million toward construction of a new bridge in Lake Charles.
Noticeably absent from the list of projects was a new bridge over the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge, which is already well into the planning stage yet still has no source of funding.
Why was the Baton Rouge bridge left out of the package?
According to Wilson, the preliminary planning phase underway for the new Baton Rouge bridge is already fully funded, and the federal relief dollars “come with timeline constraints” and have to be spent before the state will be ready to move forward with the next phase of planning for the bridge.
In 2019, the state allocated $5 million toward planning for the new bridge and subsequently awarded a contract in early 2020 to Atlas Technical Consultants to do the work, which includes identifying a location for the span.
What’s more, says Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, the amount of money in the transportation package announced Monday is not enough to make a significant dent in the cost of a new bridge, which has an estimated price tag of $1 billion.
“What we have is a $1 billion issue,” says Ward, who has been working on identifying a funding source for a new bridge since 2018. “The relief money that came in wasn’t even enough to broach the conversation or to talk about putting up some of this money for a public-private partnership.”
That said, Ward is optimistic that a funding source for the new bridge could be identified as soon as the current legislative session.
“Our opportunity to fund the new bridge is going to come not from a new tax but from redirecting an already existing tax to roads, bridges and infrastructure,” he says.
Though no bills have been filed yet, lawmakers still have time to file measures that could extend existing taxes due to sunset later this year or next.
“We always have tax credits, exemptions, sales taxes, things that are sunsetting,” he says. “At some point it’s on us if we don’t prioritize infrastructure by making a decision to phase out something from the general budget and direct it to infrastructure, regardless of what that is and where it comes from. We can’t say it’s a priority if we don’t start.”