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Louisiana House Speaker not on board with governor’s $500 million bridge plan

clay shexnayder.jpg
WESLEY MULLER
/
Louisiana Illuminator
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder

This story was first published by the Louisiana Illuminator. View the original coverage here.

Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, said Thursday that he would only support the governor’s plan to put $500 million toward a new Mississippi River bridge in the Baton Rouge area this year, if the state picks the bridge’s location before the state budget is finalized in June – a timeline transportation officials say is not realistic.

“I’m 100% on board with the bridge if we have a target spot for it,” Schexnayder said. “I’m not going to park $500 million if we’re still looking at five to six locations.”

Schexnayder’s remarks are a blow to one of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ most ambitious budget proposal since taking office in 2016. The speaker was thought to be the most high-profile member of Legislature backing the governor’s Mississippi River bridge spending plan, but Schexnayder said Thursday that his views are in line with other legislative leaders who have expressed doubts about it.

“[The bridge project] should be farther along in the process than it is,” he said.

Louisiana has only whittled down the list of possible locations for the new bridge to 10 sites, and none of them have been subjected to a thorough analysis of the traffic, environmental and cultural impacts. The U.S. Coast Guard also has to sign off on the location, said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

“It is not feasible, practical or smart for us to just declare a location,” Wilson said.

The transportation department expects to narrow the list of bridge sites to three locations by the end of this year and pick a single “preferred” site in the fall of 2023 or spring of 2024, Wilson said.

By that time, it’s highly unlikely that Louisiana will have $500 million to spare for a bridge project.

The state has more money to spend this budget cycle than it has seen in decades, but that abundance isn’t expected to last. The federal government is temporarily dumping money into the state for the COVID-19 pandemic, infrastructure needs and hurricane recovery.

It’s an allocation that won’t likely be matched in coming years. Louisiana also faces a financial cliff that will require tighter spending.

Starting in 2023, hundreds of millions of dollars in sales tax revenue from new vehicle purchases will be permanently diverted into a special fund for road projects. That will lessen the amount available to higher education, K-12 schools, healthcare and prisons. In the middle of 2025, Louisiana’s sales tax is also scheduled to automatically drop, which will also cost the state money.

Edwards pitched his plan to set aside $500 million this year for the bridge as a smart use of fleeting cash to make a once-in-a-generation investment. Baton Rouge civic and business leaders have touted the project as a way to not only alleviate traffic congestion, but to also spur growth and attract development to the state.

Yet Edwards’ plan got a cold reception in the Legislature from the moment he announced it. Both Republican and Democratic leaders expressed skepticism about putting aside $500 million for a Mississippi River bridge that isn’t farther along in development.

“It’s hard to park half a billion dollars of excess money that could sit there for 15 to 20 years before it gets spent,” Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said during a forum the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana sponsored last week.

“There are some concerns about the amount of money being committed to the Baton Rouge bridge,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport, at the same event.

A $500 million commitment could attract other investment from the federal government and private equity groups if it was set aside now though, Wilson said. The bridge, wherever it is built, is expected to cost at least $1 billion.

“I’m going to need $500 million no matter where I put it,” he said.

Schexnayder and other legislative leaders have said they are open to setting aside some funding — an amount less than $500 million — for the bridge project. It’s just unclear how much money that would be.