Jim Beam column: Bridges major budget topic

Published 7:24 am Thursday, January 27, 2022

New bridges at Lake Charles and Baton Rouge took center stage Tuesday when the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget met to hear Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed state spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Sen. Jeremy Stine, R-Lake Charles, asked why the Baton Rouge bridge was getting $500 million in the budget while a new bridge in his hometown was getting only $100 million.

Jay Dardenne, the governor’s budget chief, said the proposed Interstate 10 bridge at Lake Charles is much further down the line than a planned I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge that has 17 proposed routes.

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Dardenne said the $100 million for Lake Charles is needed now to keep new bridge plans on schedule. He said the $500 million Baton Rouge bridge fund is being established so the bridge plans can move forward.

An environmental impact study for the Lake Charles bridge is supposed to be finished this year, Dardenne said. The $100 million will result in $265 million being available to “get some work done,” he said.

Having that money available also makes it possible to attract private companies that might be interested in putting up money to construct the bridge. Private partnerships are being considered for both the Lake Charles and Baton Rouge bridges. Federal money is also expected to be available.

The most surprising thing that happened at Tuesday’s meeting was the fact that a number of legislators questioned the plan to create the $500 million Baton Rouge bridge fund. One of them was Republican Sen. Bodi White, who happens to be from Baton Rouge.

White said it wasn’t a good idea to put that much money on a new bridge while 17 possible routes are still  under consideration. Dardenne said the possible routes are supposed to be down to three by the end of the year.

Creation of the Baton Rouge bridge fund is designed to show the state’s commitment to a new bridge, Dardenne said. For the first time, the state wouldn’t be just talking about a new Baton Rouge bridge. He called it a commitment.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, also questioned the $500 million for the Baton Rouge bridge, which he said could be a decade away. He and White said legislators will have other opinions about how to use that $500 million. White said a lower amount might be acceptable.

Getting across that Baton Rouge bridge has become a daily nightmare for local and long-distance travelers. Some workers in the area have changed jobs in order to avoid having to cross the bridge to get to work and back home. Some 150,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day.

Edwards defended the Baton Rouge bridge spending at a news conference a day earlier. “This is tangible funding being dedicated to turn what was one a dream into a reality,” he said.

Republican Rep. Rick Edmonds, another Baton Rouge lawmaker, praised the plan to spend the $500 million. He said residents throughout the metropolitan area, both those in rural and urban areas, will benefit from a new bridge. Edmonds said it would be a major benefit for his children and grandchildren.

Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, said at the governor’s Monday news conference why the Baton Rouge bridge is more costly.

Wilson said construction costs are rising 2.5 percent a year and approaches on both sides of the Mississippi River are essential and expensive. Earlier estimates said a Baton Rouge bridge would cost $1 billion, but Dardenne said Tuesday the cost could be as high as $2 billion.

Legislators will have other ideas when they debate Edwards’ proposed budget, but we hope they don’t repeat mistakes of the past. The Public Affairs Research Council talked about one of those mistakes in its report titled “The Budget Bonanza.” It said lawmakers have used some extra money in the past to load up budget bills with tens of millions of dollars in pet projects for their districts.

Lawmakers will have billions of dollars to spend at their regular session beginning March 14. You can be sure a number of them will think they have better ideas than the governor’s administration about where it should be spent. They said as much Tuesday.

As for the new bridges, don’t worry about Baton Rouge competition. Our bridge has made some progress. The Baton Rouge bridge doesn’t even have a route.