Not all hope is lost for a new Mississippi River bridge

    Lawmakers delivered a crushing, if not altogether unexpected, blow to Baton Rouge’s hopes for funding for a new Mississippi River bridge when they defeated Rep. Steve Carter’s gas tax bill in a House committee earlier this week.

    But just hours later, the full House passed two bills that—if approved by the Senate—would allocate significant funding to state highway and bridge projects.

    Though the measures have largely escaped public attention, advocates of increased investment in transportation infrastructure are hailing the House action as a key victory—and keeping a close eye on whether the bills survive the Senate.

    “It’s potentially very good news,” says Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of CRISIS, an industry-led group pushing for increased infrastructure funding. “If they can work through the budget implications of these bills, we could see a very meaningful chunk of money going towards transportation projects.”

    Meaningful to say the least. If both HB 313, by Rep. Mark Wright of Covington, and HB 414, by Baton Rouge Rep. Paula Davis, are approved, more than $650 million a year that currently goes to the state general fund would be directed instead to a special design and construction sub-fund of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

    Specifically, Wright’s bill prohibits the use of money in the state Transportation Trust Fund from being used to fund employees’ and retirees’ salaries and benefits at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. The TTF is supposed to be used only to fund design and construction for road and highway projects, but over the years DOTD has siphoned off a healthy portion of the funds to pay for operating expenses and legacy costs.

    Kirkpatrick estimates the measure would generate some $430 million a year, which could go directly to transportation construction projects.

    Davis’ bill, meanwhile, allocates a portion of state sales taxes to transportation projects. The bill kicks in after state sales and use tax revenues have hit $3.9 billion for two consecutive years. Once they do, which is their current level, the first $250 million would be redirected to infrastructure projects.

    When taken together with a third bill by Sen. Rick Ward, which would dedicate a portion of BP oil spill settlement funds to a long-awaited connector road on LA 415, the state could see as much as $650 million a year in new construction dollars.

    “The Senate has a lot to chew on now,” Kirkpatrick says “Knowing these three bills are the only things they can do this term to make a significant transportation investment, I’m very intrigued to see what they’ll do with it.”

    The Senate Finance committee is expected to take up the measures next week.

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