Gov. John Bel Edwards’ $600 million plan to widen Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge and other road projects cleared its first hurdle Wednesday.
The Joint Transportation Committee, without dissent, approved state officials pursuing the use of federal bonds to finance the work.
The proposal still faces an array of state and federal steps.
A key part of the package is $350 million aimed at widening I-10 from the Mississippi River bridge to the I-10/12 split, which could start in 2019 or 2020.
It would also include up to $110 million to build a new interchange on I-10 at Loyola Drive in Kenner to serve the renovated Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
That work could start as early as January 2019.
Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the federal financing plan would be a first for Louisiana. “It is just the right projects and the right time,” he told the committee.
While there was no debate on the merits of the projects, some House and Senate members said they had concerns about paying off the borrowing debt.
Under the plan, the state would use federal Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle bonds – GARVEE – to essentially get an advance on federal aid. The debt would be repaid over 12 years by using $67 million per year in federal allocations that would otherwise be used for other interstate projects.
While Louisiana has never pursued GARVEE bonds, Wilson said 25 other states have done so with success.
Sen. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said top DOTD officials, including Wilson, have shied away from using the bonds in the past.
Wilson said the state has relied on budget surpluses and federal stimulus dollars to finance major work, including the widening of others parts of I-10 as well as I-12 in Baton Rouge.
He said he would not be pursuing the proposal if the Legislature had approved a major hike in the state gasoline tax last year .
Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, praised the plan. “If we don’t do something we are going to continue to bleed and be behind in our infrastructure,” Landry said.
During public testimony, Adam Knapp, president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said the I-10 widening in Baton Rouge is desperately needed.
Knapp cited a study by Texas A&M that listed Baton Rouge as the third most congested mid-sized city in the U. S.
“Something must be done for major projects in Louisiana, and perhaps there is not a better way to do that than a GARVEE bond proposal,” he said.
Louisiana has a nearly $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.
The Legislature is not expected to debate any revenue-raising measures for roads and bridges until at least 2021 because of constitutional rules and political concerns.
Some legislators are wary of the push because a bond issue approved by voters in 1989 – called TIMED – has been embroiled in controversy for years.
Projects that were supposed to cost $1.4 billion are now estimated to cost $5.2 billion, with state payments extending to 2045.
Wilson conceded that the I-10 widening in Baton Rouge could fall short of goals if costs are higher than expected.
A sheet prepared by DOTD said the bonds would finance a “substantial portion” of the work from the bridge to the I-10/12 split.
The proposal calls for a new lane in each direction along the 3.5 mile corridor, and at least five years to do the work.
Rep. H. Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte, complained that the planned improvements would ignore the needs of rural roads. “We are getting shafted and pushed to the side,” LeBas told Wilson.
The governor’s plans next face review by the State Bond Commission and the powerful Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget. Wilson also has to work out an agreement with federal officials on the bonds. Whether the debt would count toward the state’s limit is expected to be one of the issues at the Bond Commission.
The third project in the plan is new access to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City from I-20.
The committee also approved the use of design/build for the New Orleans and Bossier City projects. That method is supposed to speed the work by using a joint team of highway designers and builders rather than handling those steps separately.