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Gov. Edwards says funding for new river bridge looks iffy

Editor’s note: This story has been revised from an earlier version to clarify the business community’s position on a proposed gasoline tax.

Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp said earlier this week that finding funding for a new bridge across the Mississippi River is BRAC’s top project priority for 2017.

But Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday he doesn’t see at this point how the cash-strapped state will be able to do that.

“It’s difficult for me to commit to putting that bridge in the transportation package because it is such an expensive project,” Edwards said. “We certainly need to find a way to do it but there is a lot of disagreement whether the $700 million figure the transportation task force came up with is doable in light of what revenue is going to be available.”

A transportation task force appointed by Edwards last year spent six months studying the state’s transportation infrastructure needs and delivered its final report in December. The group says the state needs to raise $700 million a year in new taxes and fees—which it suggests could come from a 23-cent gasoline tax hike—to appropriately address the $13 billion backlog of road and bridge projects and the $16 billion worth of new mega projects, including a $1 billion new bridge in Baton Rouge.

“That is going to be very difficult,” Edwards said, though he said he supports the need for a new bridge.

“It is absolutely needed,” he said. “The east west corridor through Baton Rouge is the single highest priority transportation capacity project that needs to be addressed.”

Knapp and transportation lobbyist Scott Kirkpatrick, who heads the industry group CRISIS, say members of the Capital Region delegation are united in their push for the new bridge and are open to discussions about the 23-cent gasoline tax.

But Edwards has said convincing two-thirds of the Legislature to approve such a tax hike would be very difficult.

The task force also recommends relying on public-private partnerships to help do some of the transportation projects, and locally business leaders are privately discussing options that could involve local companies.

Edwards said he supports the concept of public-private partnerships because they are often more efficient and can typically get the job done more quickly.

“There is some utility to those partnerships but none of those partners are in business to give us anything for free,” the governor said. “You still have to have a revenue stream that is dedicated to those projects.”

—Stephanie Riegel

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