Baton Rouge area traffic congestion a ‘cancer,’ new Mississippi river bridge needed, BRAC leader says

The Advocate

Traffic congestion has become a “cancer” in the Baton Rouge area, and a new bridge across the Mississippi River is the top need, the leader of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber said Friday.

“All is not well,” said Adam Knapp, president and CEO of BRAC. “Our place has a crisis.”

Knapp made his comments to a regional meeting of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ 18-member transportation task force.

The panel is holding hearings statewide before making recommendations by Jan. 1 to the governor on how to tackle road and bridge problems, including a nearly $13 billion backlog.

A boost in the state’s gasoline tax – up to 20 cents per gallon is being floated – is one of the likely suggestions of the panel.

“There is a growing chorus across the state saying we have to make a change,”said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

Motorists in Louisiana pay 38.4 cents per gallon in state and federal gasoline taxes, including 16 cents in state taxes for rank-and-file projects. (The national average is 48.7 cents per gallon. Louisiana is about a tenth of cent more expensive Texas and about two cents more than Mississippi.)

“It has been 27 years since we have done anything like this,” Wilson told the group. “It has to happen.”

Wilson also said Edwards “is willing to be big and bold in transportation.”

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, told the task force the Baton Rouge area is in dire need of traffic relief.

“By God, we as a group are united to make sure the area is taken care of,” Carter said. “Please make sure this area is taken care of.”

Knapp said the state needs at least $600 million more per year for transportation.

Each penny of the state gasoline tax raises about $30 million per year, which means a boosts of 20 cents per gallon would raise around $600 million annually.

Other funding options are also under review, including tolls and public/private partnerships.

A new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge south of the current, newer one would cost at least $1 billion.

Knapp said it would also take 8-10 years to build a new one.

“No project stands out more than a new southern bridge,” he said. “We know more revenue is going to be needed to make that possible.”

Knapp said Baton Rouge area employment has grown three times faster than the rest of the state, and overwhelmed an already stressed transportation system.

He said a 2016 survey of business leaders put transportation over flood recovery as the top priority.

Carter noted that a 1989 transportation bond issue called TIMED mostly excluded the Baton Rouge area even though motorists pay four cents per gallon to help retire that debt.

“Whatever it might be,” Carter said of possible funding sources. “We know what is wrong and we need help.”

Carter and others also quizzed DOTD officials on why a new bridge is on the state’s second tier of mega projects, which means it has less priority than A-list improvements.

John Pacillo, operations director for Mexichem Fluor in St. Gabriel,  said road and bridge troubles are crippling the area’s economy.

Pacillo said delays getting in and out of plants drive up costs.

“The infrastructure problems  in this region, right now, are making the plants less competitive,” he added.

Pacillo said backups on the Mississippi River bridge result in four, five and six-hour delays for businesses.

“We do need more lanes across the Mississippi River,” he told the group.

A tax hike to boost state aid for roads and bridges is likely to be a key issue during the 2017 regular legislative session.

However, any such increase requires two-thirds majorities in both chambers, always a high hurdle.

Carter and state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, said area lawmakers have the political will to boost state aid for transportation.

“This is the sort of thing we don’t want to miss out on,” Edmonds said.

Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary for DOTD, said an additional $700 million per year would allow the state to tackle a wide range of major projects, including a new bridge in Baton Rouge.

Kalivoda said how to raise the money needs attention.

“That is what we need to get to,” Kalivoda.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville and a member of the task force, said he would back a hike in the state’s gasoline tax.

“I know we need it,” Havard said. “I don’t know if it is going to be 20 cents, I don’t know if it is going to be 10 cents.”

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