Louisiana House Appropriations Committee redirects new bridging funds

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Funding for a new Mississippi bridge could already be in jeopardy after the House Appropriations Committee on Monday morning took the $500 million and dedicated it to a so-called “radial fund.”

“I like the name, but I don’t want the new bridge to be like a spare tire,” said Commissioner Jay Dardenne.

The fund would revitalize infrastructure across Louisiana, but it would immediately siphon $100 million out of the $500 million to cover other infrastructure projects across the state.

Through this fund, $400 million will go to a construction trust and $100 million to a preservation trust.

“Right off the bat, by definition, that $500 million is reduced to $400 million because we’re not interested in conservation,” Dardenne said. “We are interested in a new construction project.”

The remaining $400 million is not earmarked for the bridge, although it could still go to the bridge.

“But that could also go to other institutions for other projects,” Dardenne said.

The House Appropriations Committee is chaired by State Assemblyman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma. Democrat MP from Delhi Francis Thompson is Vice-Chair.

Iberville Township President J. Mitchell Ourso could not be reached for comment, but West Baton Rouge Township President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot expressed disappointment with the plan.

“I’m not sure what will come of this plan, but it proves that we have some legislators who have no vision for the future,” Berthelot said. “We finally have an opportunity for a project that benefits everyone, and then we hear something like that.

“This shouldn’t be about politics – it should be about what’s right,” he said. “From California to Florida, this is the worst traffic area on Interstate 10 — and that includes the tunnel in Mobile, Alabama — but we have legislators who will not approve this project.”

The $500 million represents 20 percent of the estimated $2.5 billion price tag for the new bridge and roads leading to the artery.

The state cannot afford to let lawmakers miss what is perhaps its greatest opportunity to build a new Mississippi Bridge near Baton Rouge, Dardenne said.

“The time is now,” he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge at his weekly luncheon Monday. “If not now, the question is when? That’s a question everyone has to ask themselves.”

The proposed fiscal year 2023 that Gov. John Bel Edwards presented to lawmakers in January included the $500 million for initial work that would lead to the construction of the new bridge.

The bridge would connect Baton Rouge to an area south of Port Allen in either the Iberville or West Baton Rouge parishes.

The two bridges connecting Baton Rouge to the West Bank were completed in 1940 and 1968 respectively.

“It’s high time for a new ‘new’ bridge,” he said, referring to the news that the Mississippi River Bridge — also known as the Horace Wilkinson Bridge — opened to traffic in April 1968.

Voters need to ask that question to the Legislature’s 143 lawmakers, specifically the eight senators and 16 congressmen serving Iberville, East Baton Rouge, Ascension and West Baton Rouge, Dardenne said.

The funds would allow lawmakers to use “one-time money” for a one-time purchase, he said.

The 20 percent would represent an assurance that the projects will be completed – even if the price is likely to change.

“We know that these numbers are increasing every day and we certainly see that every day, especially with our capital projects,” he said. “Due to the supply shortage, the bids are coming back much higher than expected.”

It would also allow the state Department of Transportation and Development to use these funds as “hard evidence” of the state’s commitment and improve the state’s chances of meaningfully bidding for competitive grants.

Additionally, it would increase the credibility of the DOTD as it looks for third-party developers to form a private/public partnership as the project progresses, Dardenne said.

He said it would also minimize the amount of tolls the state would have to collect to make the projects a reality.

The $500 million would “represent a significant launch pad,” Dardenne said.

“It’s no excuse to say the project is too far away,” he said. “It’s up to us, because the mandatory environmental regulations, the procurement and the complex financing plan are right on our doorstep.”

The Capital Region Bridge Commission will limit the number of potential sites to three by the June 6 end of the legislative session.

This would lead to environmental studies that would narrow the choices to one site by summer 2024.

“It’s no excuse to say we need a specific location before we invest that much money,” Dardenne said. “This lengthy federal process must be followed, but we do not have the luxury of waiting.”

The state cannot afford to wait for final site selection because the state must have the environmental assessment and developments that must be put together once the site is selected, he said.

It’s no excuse for the money to sit idle, Dardenne said.

“Obviously, interest accrues on the money that is not being spent in the short term and, more importantly, it is being viewed as a resource for the state to use for the necessary competitive grant grant matching funds,” he said. “These are competitive, and it’s critical that Louisiana has the appropriate grants it needs to pull the competitive grant money.”

Dardenne called the opportunity “a once in a lifetime opportunity”.

The state’s solid fiscal status gives the state much more flexibility in infrastructure development.

The state is expected to end the current fiscal year with a surplus of $700 million and $800 million next year.

“All the indicators from our economists and all the specific monthly reports from our fiscal year suggest that we are performing better than our forecasts,” Dardenne said. “These are all mechanisms to pay off our debts.”

If lawmakers continue funding the project this year, they would select a state-approved development team that would recruit engineering, financial, construction and maintenance experts.

The environmental process could be completed by 2024, taking the project forward to 2025.

“It’s a lot sooner than it sounds, which is why it’s so important that lawmakers make the financial commitment now,” Dardenne said. “Today, Louisiana is awash with one-time money that should be spent on one-time priorities.

“The stars are aligned to make this bridge a reality,” he said.

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