House Appropriations committee diverts money for new Mississippi River bridge project

Staff Report

Funding for a new Mississippi River Bridge hit a pothole Monday when the House Appropriations committee voted against the recommendation Gov. John Bel Edwards issued in January. 

The Radial Fund would revitalize infrastructure across Louisiana, but it would immediately siphon $100 million from the $500 million for the bridge project. The remaining $400 million could go to other projects across the state.

Traffic remains at a crawl each day along the Mississippi River Bridge. Funds for a new bridge could be in jeopardy, based on the decision Monday from the state House Appropriations Committee.

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

That fund would funnel $400 million into a construction trust fund and $100 million into a preservation trust fund.

“Right off the bat, that $500 million by definition is reduced to $400 million,” Dardenne said. “We didn’t want this money for a preservation project … we’re interested in a new construction project.”

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

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

The House Appropriations Committee is chaired by state Rep. Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma. Delhi Democrat Rep. Francis Thompson is vice-chairman.

Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso, who has been a leading advocate for a new bridge and the end of long waits at the Plaquemine Ferry, expressed disappointment.

But it did not come as a shock, he said.

“Gov. Edwards did his job when he put the half-billion dollars into this mega-product for the region,” he said. “Our legislature did its job, and our local senator (Rick Ward) did his job with the Capital Area Roads and District, and the same goes for Representatives (Chad) Brown and (Jeremy) LaCombe. But what happened doesn’t surprise me.” 

The decision sends a bad message to constituents, West Baton Rouge Parish Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot said.

“I’m not sure what’s going to come out of that plan, but it proves that we have some legislators with no vision for the future,” Berthelot said. “We finally have the opportunity for a project that would benefit 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 area of traffic on Interstate 10 – and that includes the tunnel in Mobile, Ala. – yet we have legislators who won’t approve this project.”

Ward – a member of the Senate Transportation, Highways & Public Works Committee – said the fight for the bridge is far from over.

None of the $400 million is earmarked for other projects, which still allows room for negotiation, said Ward, R-Port Allen, who helped establish the Capital Bridges & Roads District.

“They basically kept the money in a fund for us to continue to negotiate,” he said. “It’s still very much in place, and the main thing is that the $400 million is not earmarked for any other projects.

“My main concern is that it was not allocated for something else,” Ward said. “Had it left allocated to five different things, we would’ve had an uphill battle.”

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

The state cannot afford for lawmakers to pass up perhaps the greatest opportunity to build a new Mississippi River Bridge near Baton Rouge, Dardenne said.

“The time is now,” he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge at its weekly luncheon Monday. “If it’s not now, the question is when? That’s a question everyone needs to be asking.”

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

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

The two bridges that connect Baton Rouge to the Westbank were completed in 1940 and 1968, respectively.

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

Constituents need to pose that question to the 143 lawmakers of the legislature, particularly those eight senators and 16 representatives who serve Iberville, East Baton Rouge, Ascension and West Baton Rouge, Dardenne said.

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

The 20 percent would represent a pledge to assure that the projects is completed – even though the price tag will likely change.

“We know those numbers are going up daily, and we’re certainly seeing that daily, especially with our capital outlay projects,” he said. “Bids are coming back way higher than anticipated because of the supply shortage.”

It would also enable the state Department of Transportation and Development to use those funds as “hard evidence” of the state’s commitment and enhances the state’s chances of meaningfully competing for competitive grants.

In addition, it would enable the DOTD credibility as it seeks third-party developers to enter a private/public partnership as the project moves forward, Dardenne said.

He said it would also minimize the amounts on tolls the state would have to impose to make the projects a reality.

The $500 million would represent “a meaningful launching pad,” Dardenne said.

“It is not an excuse to say that the project is too far off,” he said. “It is upon us because the mandatory environmental requirements, the acquisition and the complex financing plan is right at our doorstep.”

The Capital Region Bridge Commission is set to narrow the number of prospective sites to three by the time the legislative session adjourns June 6.

It would lead to the environmental studies that would narrow the choice to one site by summer 2024.

“It’s not an excuse to say we need a definite site before we commit this much money,” Dardenne said. “This lengthy federal process must be followed, but we can’t afford the luxury of waiting on that.”

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

It’s not an excuse for the money to sit idle, Dardenne said.

“Obviously, there will be interest accrued on the money that is not spent in the short term and, more importantly, it will be viewed as funds the state can put up for use on required matching funds for grants on competitive grants,” he said. “These are competitive, and it’s critical that Louisiana have the matching grants necessary to draw down the money for competitive grants.”

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

The state’s robust fiscal status gives the state much more flexibility on infrastructure developments.

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

“All the indicators from our economists and all of the specific reports monthly from our fiscal year suggest we are doing better than our forecasts expected,” Dardenne said. “Those are all mechanisms to pay down our debt.”

If legislators continue the project’s funding this year, they will select a development team – approved by lawmakers – that would acquire experts in engineering, finance, construction and maintenance.

The environmental process could be completed by 2024 and move the project forward by 2025.

“It’s much sooner than it sounds, so that’s why it’s so critical the legislature makes the monetary 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.