Newsmaker of the Week: I-10 widening

    Shortly upon taking office two years ago, Shawn Wilson, the head of Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development, identified the highest-priority road projects in Louisiana.

    At the top of that list was widening Interstate 10, east and west of the Mississippi River Bridge—part of an ambitious agenda from the Gov. John Bel Edwards administration to invest heavily in infrastructure, amid a multi-billion-dollar backlog in projects.

    “While this is the Capital City, we recognize that corridor is an international corridor,” Wilson told reporters in 2016. Business groups like the Baton Rouge Area Chamber insisted repeatedly that investing in roads and bridges would greatly aid economic development.

    While the revenue component of Edwards’ plan—he endorsed increasing the gas tax to pay for such megaprojects—has not panned out, the administration today made a major announcement that the widening of I-10 from the Mississippi River Bridge to the I-10/I-12 split is moving forward.

    Edwards and a group of state and local officials announced the $350 million project today as part of a $600 million infrastructure package that includes projects in three areas of the state.

    After the failure of a gas tax hike last year—sponsored by Baton Rouge-area Republican state Rep. Steve Carter—the prospects of landing megaprojects appeared dim. Most observers thought another gas tax proposal wouldn’t be introduced for several years, which was taken as an ominous sign for the prospect of any major projects.

    However, today’s announcement indicates the state was able to make some headway on major transportation projects, even with a major backlog in capital outlay and a state budget crisis.

    Today, Edwards called the funding mechanism for the project “innovative,” and says that’s exactly what the state needs.

    The project raises a key question for transportation projects in Louisiana: How much headway can the state make on rebuilding crumbling roads and alleviating traffic congestion without a new injection of revenue?

    “All we’re doing with this is borrowing money from the federal government and leveraging it and bringing it forward,” Wilson said at today’s announcement. “It’s not creating new revenue. It’s a reallocation of priorities.”

    “Make no mistake,” he adds in a statement. “This does not solve our transportation funding problem, it simply addresses the tip of the iceberg of infrastructure needs.”

    —Sam Karlin

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