If a bill offered by state Sen. Rick Ward (R-Maringouin) makes it to becoming a law, it will give voters the chance to vote on a means to fund a new bridge across the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.
While the bill has already been passed by the Senate, it will need the approval of the House of Representatives and earn Gov. John Bel Edwards’ signature for the proposal to make it to a future ballot.
The ultimate objective of the bill is the construction of a bridge to connect the east and west sides of the Mississippi River south of the Horace Wilkinson Bridge, commonly referred to as “the new bridge.”
“The Capitol Area Road and Bridge District is hereby created as a political subdivision of the state of Louisiana for the purpose of raising revenue to finance road and bridge projects to alleviate traffic congestion in the district,” the bill reads.
Ward’s bill calls for the inclusion of Iberville, Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Livingston and West Baton Rouge parishes in the district.
Iberville Parish President Mitchell Ourso could be expected to support the bill – given he has been campaigning for a new bridge almost since he was elected over 20 years ago.
“I think the big push really began in the mid-2000s,” he said, beginning with the construction of the Shintech south of Plaquemine and has escalated continually since. “Hurricane Katrina changed everything in the Baton Rouge area.”
One of the most dramatic changes, Ourso said, was the increase in the population of communities in the greater Baton Rouge area and the accompanying traffic congestion it created. Ward said he recognized the problem even before he was elected in late 2011.
“Out of all the things that we do, of all the things I hear from constituents, traffic is by far the number one problem,” he said. “Quite honestly, I don’t feel comfortable telling people any more, ‘I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do.’”
Ward said he had no idea of where the bridge might be located or what funding mechanism the district might ask voters to approve, but said he believes its construction would eliminate the current traffic bottleneck between West Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge.
“If we choose to just wait on the state, what it will result in is, ‘We have no ability to do anything for the foreseeable future,’” the senator said. “So I just started thinking of other possibilities and I know there are other states that utilize all sorts of funding methods, like toll roads.”
“My plan is to create a region that will allow us to take care of ourselves,” Ward said, continuing he understands how difficult it could be to get any type of tax or fee passed.
“Any time there’s a proposed tax, I know it’s not easy to get it passed but if people know this is for a bridge and the supporting projects that have to go with it, I think it stands a chance,” he continued, then explained the provisions of the proposed bill.
“The members of the commission will be tasked with coming up with a feasible plan,” Ward said. “Where the bridge is located is less important than having the ability to pay for it.”
“If you go with a public/private partnership, you don’t have to generate all that money at once,” he continued. “You can find ways to use the tax to finance a bond issue or utilize toll roads.”
Ward said the amount of the tax and the type of tax—sales or property—would be determined by the commission based on the plan to build a new bridge and what the price tag would be.
“They have to make sure that the tax the ask people to vote for is sufficient to actually finance building the bridge,” he said.