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Lawmakers split on proposed $500M investment for Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge

mississippi bridge.jpg
Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator
The Interstate 10 Horace Wilkinson Bridge is congested with traffic crossing the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge on Monday, Sept. 29, 2021.

As Louisiana lawmakers got their first glimpse of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year, many expressed deep reservations about the second-term Democrat’s proposed $500 million investment in a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.

Edwards and Louisiana lawmakers are in the unusual position of having $3.8 billion more than expected. The excess money comes in the form of $1.4 billion in unappropriated federal pandemic aid: a $700 million surplus from the previous fiscal year, $853 million in higher-than-expected tax revenue in the current fiscal year.

Once large chunks of those monies are sent to certain funds as required by state law, lawmakers will be left with an extra $1.6 billion to appropriate during the legislative session that begins March 14. As is required by the state constitution, Edwards developed the first draft of the state spending plan, which will serve as the benchmark for all budget negotiations this spring.

Edwards talked through the high points of that proposal, which included a proposed $1,500 pay raise for K-12 teachers, significant investments in education at every level and a more than $1 billion investment in infrastructure, on Monday. Jay Dardenne, the state’s commissioner of administration and Edwards’ top budget advisor, presented a more detailed review of the budget proposal to lawmakers Tuesday.

To avoid budget shortfalls in future years, Edwards devoted large sums of one-time money from the federal government and previous years’ surpluses to the state’s infrastructure, which has been chronically underfunded for decades. Edwards said putting a significant portion of the “once-in-a-generation” excesses of this budget cycle toward the long-awaited Mississippi River bridge could have a transformative effect on the Capital Region.

“This is what it looks like to make the most of the dollars you have,” Edwards said. “Many of these projects have been on the books a long time. Some people probably even forgot about them.”

With few exceptions, Louisiana state lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget generally agreed with the Edwards administration’s recommendation to spend the bulk of this one-time influx of cash on one-time expenses.

But many on the panel balked at Edwards’ proposal to devote $500 million to a new bridge over the Mississippi River in the Baton Rouge area, favoring instead smaller, shovel-ready projects and initiatives unrelated to infrastructure altogether.

Senate President Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) said he supported the idea of a new Mississippi River bridge in concept but expressed doubts about the Edwards administration’s proposed investment.

“We don’t even have a route yet,” Cortez said. “It could be more than a decade or so away if you fast-track it. So, is that the best use of money, to put it in a fund for 10 to 15 years before you ever get the project off the ground?”

The Capital Area Road and Bridge District has held preliminary talks on how and where a new Mississippi River bridge might be built and is considering 17 potential locations for the crossing.

Dardenne said that panel may narrow that list down to three by the end of the year, but he acknowledged that it could take much longer to finalize a location.

There is no official estimate for how much the project would cost, but Dardenne said Tuesday the project cost would most likely be over $1 billion and could eclipse the $2 billion mark depending on when the state begins construction and how inflation and other factors might affect material and labor costs.

Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath) said the proposal came with “sticker shock” for representatives of rural areas who feel their projects had been overlooked.

“I’m getting a lot of questions from constituents about why we’re spending on a bridge this early [in development] when we’re bouncing around on roads in these rural areas,” Miguez said. “There will be a lot of different opinions about how to spend that $500 million, and there are bridges in southwest Louisiana that are a safety concern, not a traffic concern.”

House Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee (R-Houma) floated the idea of putting the money in a sub-fund dedicated to so-called megaprojects, which would ensure the money would be spent on hard expenses, like concrete, steel and construction labor, instead of soft expenses, like DOTD salaries, engineering contracts and environmental studies. Magee and other Republicans have long complained that the state’s transportation project backlog is a product of bloated DOTD administrative expenses.

Sen. Bodi White (R-Central), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a prominent Baton Rouge-area lawmaker, expressed his own doubts about the long-term viability of the project and the wisdom of devoting such a large portion of the state’s once-in-a-generation excess revenue to a project with no expected start date, let alone a date for completion.s

But White was the only Capital Area lawmaker who voiced concern about the project. Rep. Denise Marcelle and Sen. Regina Barrow, both Democrats who represent districts in north Baton Rouge, said the project could reduce traffic congestion on either side of the Mississippi River and promote commerce in the region.

“Eighteen-wheelers hate to come through the Baton Rouge corridor on I-10 because of the backlog and how much time it costs them to be able to make their deliveries,” Barrow said. “This is going to be a great investment.”

Rep. Rick Edmonds broke with his Republican colleagues to voice his support for the bridge funding, saying the project would positively impact generations of Louisiana residents.

“And as that bridge goes, so goes all of our rural parishes,” Edmonds said. “Everybody is affected by the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.”

While the discussion highlighted stark differences in opinion between the Edwards administration and the legislature’s Republican majority, the tenor of the debate was much softer than in recent years. Arguing over how to spend excess money typically goes more smoothly than wrestling over which state programs should be cut.

Dardenne said the governor and his administration were open to discussing any shifting priorities in the months to come.

“When you have money like this, which this legislature and this governor have not had in a long time, there are obviously going to be lots of hands out and lots of demands,” Dardenne said. “We’ll make our recommendations to you and argue forcefully that this is a good way to use the money, but you’ll obviously make the decision at the end of the day on what those priorities are.”

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.