Could tolls help finance a new Mississippi River bridge? Here’s how much they’d cost drivers

The Advocate

Toll revenue would pay for only 17 percent of a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, a top state official said Tuesday.

Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, made the comment during the first meeting of a panel seeking ways to finance a new bridge, which would cost about $1 billion.

The seven-member panel features leaders of five parishes in the Baton Rouge area, including East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

Kalivoda’s comments reinforced what officials knew coming in — paying for a new bridge is a huge financial and political challenge with no easy answers.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, a member of the commission, said there is a misconception that toll money can handle the brunt of the costs.

Kalivoda told the group that although more research is being done, at least 75 percent of the financing would have to come from other sources even if the impact of tolls is revised upward.

The tolls could range from $3 for passenger vehicles to $8 for heavy trucks, according to state estimates.

What the state envisions is a six-lane structure with four-lane approaches on each side connecting La. 1 to La. 30 south of the new bridge.

The current structure — known locally as the “new” bridge even though it is a half century old — is the source of daily backups, motorists’ anger and business disruptions.

About 150,000 cars and trucks cross the bridge daily, according to DOTD.

State Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, a sponsor of the bill, said problems sparked by bridge traffic have to be addressed.

“It is almost a crisis situation that we get something done,” he said. “It is vital that we figure out a way to accomplish this goal.”

Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, cited plans to widen Interstate 10 from the bridge to the I-10/12 split and the recent approval of a half cent sales tax hike to pay for nearly $1 billion in Baton Rouge area projects. “The one that has been the problem to move forward is this one,” Knapp said, a reference to a new bridge.

Knapp said the Baton Rouge area, which has about 850,000 residents, is rated 13th worst for traffic congestion in the U.S., the smallest populated area to get that designation.

The commission has the authority to ask voters to approve a financing plan to build a new bridge, plus connector routes near the new structure.

Voters at some point could be asked to endorse a bond issue or sales or property tax hike in addition to tolls.

Public-private partnerships also could be a possibility.

The commission includes parish presidents from East Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston, West Baton Rouge and Iberville; Wilson; and Mike Wampold, a Baton Rouge developer and the lone appointee by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Using tolls to pay for just part of a major project is common across the country, said Kevin Hoeflich, chairman of toll services for the consulting engineering firm HNTB in Orlando, Florida.

Hoeflich said bridge tolls are typically pricier than others, which means “some significant tolls rates” would be needed to entirely finance a new bridge. “What we have seen because of the costs of construction is there are multiple funding sources potentially,” he said.

Prospects for a state-funded bridge are bleak amid Louisiana’s nearly $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

Wilson said tackling the issue through a regional approach makes sense. “We support the effort,” he said.

Kalivoda said officials would have to decide whether to pursue an interstate-style corridor or conventional highway.

He said the interstate option would generate more toll revenue but also trigger more impact on people and nature.

Kalivoda said a conventional highway lends itself to incremental construction and would be cheaper to build.

If tolls are part of the funding plan, officials would have to decide whether to collect them on one or both sides of the new bridge.

Traditional toll plazas are unlikely for safety and other reasons, Hoeflich said.

He said the fees would be more likely collected through transponders attached to windshields or by billing motorists based on snapshots of license plates.

Kalivoda said a $5 million environmental impact study will be required if federal funds are involved.

Permits from the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have to be obtained as well as a five-parish air quality study.

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