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What’s plan B? Baton Rouge business leaders try to regroup in wake of gas tax failure

A statewide business coalition that pushed for a new gasoline tax to fund badly needed road and bridge projects around the state knew they were facing an uphill battle before the Legislature.

Still, the defeat Wednesday of the tax hike, which was originally proposed at 17 cents per gallon but later reduced to 10 cents, came as a crushing blow and leaves them trying to answer the question: So what now?

“I think this region will have to grapple with that,” says Scott Kirkpatrick, who heads CRISIS, a Capital Region industry-led group that has been lobbying for transportation infrastructure investment. “Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be talking about what we can do and where we can go. We’ll just have to step back and look at what our opportunities may be.”

Realistically, there aren’t many options. Tolls are one possibility, and could help fund a new bridge across the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge. But they wouldn’t generate nearly enough to cover the estimated $1.5 billion cost of the new span. Federal funding would be needed as well, but federal transportation dollars require state matching funds and without the gas tax hike, it’s hard to see where those matching dollars would come from.

“Somehow you have to find a mixture of local and federal sources,” Baton Rouge Area Chamber President and CEO Adam Knapp says. “Because the state can’t solve this problem for the near term—and that is on the legislators, as a body, for failing Louisiana.”

One of the biggest disappointments about the failure of the measure—which didn’t die on the House floor but, rather, was pulled by its sponsor, Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, after he realized he didn’t have the 70 votes needed for passage—is that it likely won’t come up again for several years.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has indicated he will call a special session later this summer to deal with fiscal reform, but has told lawmakers he will not include the gas tax hike in the call, says Carter, who sponsored the tax measure. Beyond that, 2018 is a nonfiscal session, which means tax issues cannot be addressed, and 2019 is an election year, which will decrease the willingness of lawmakers to pass any tax.

The following year is another nonfiscal session, which means 2021 is the next opportunity to even consider a statewide funding mechanism for projects that will take years more to plan and build.

“Tough thing is if you’re a business that’s planning and you know there are four or five years before a solution is even considered,” Kirkpatrick says. “That is daunting.”

Carter’s original 17-cent tax hike proposal would have funded a list of 39 mega projects throughout the state that were identified by CRISIS, using engineering metrics, to have the greatest impact and to provide taxpayers with the most bang for their buck.

The top three projects in the Capital Region on that list were: a new bridge across the river, the widening of Interstate 10 in Ascension Parish and the widening of I-10 through Baton Rouge from the river to the I-10/I-12 split. Of those, planning and design is already underway for the Ascension Parish widening, a $350 million project and Knapp believes it will move forward because Edwards has already committed state funding to it.

Planning and design work will also continue on the I-10 widening through Baton Rouge, though the death of the gasoline tax means no construction money is available to make the project happen.

Carter was circumspect this morning, and says at this point it’s “back to the drawing board … as to where we are, I don’t know. It’s frustrating but that’s where we are.”

Knapp is also frustrated, saying he doesn’t understand where the opposition thinks money will come from to address the state’s crumbling, outmoded infrastructure. But he is heartened, at least, by the unity among the business community statewide and the parish leaders in the Capital Region.

“We as a CRISIS coalition will not give up,” he says. “We are going to begin looking at all alternatives, most of which realize the state is useless. They have said we don’t care about Louisiana’s infrastructure.”

—Stephanie Riegel

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