Optimistic outlook

Gov. Edwards talks economy, I-10 bridge, criminal justice reform with local business leaders

{{tncms-inline alignment=”left” content=”<p class="p1"><strong>Replacing the I-10 bridge is ‘very much on our radar.’</strong></p> <p class="p3"><strong>Gov. John Bel Edwards</strong></p>” id=”497f57bd-c5a3-4289-b88c-3cd0381750d9″ style-type=”quote” title=”Pull Quote” type=”relcontent”}}

Gov. John Bel Edwards told more than a dozen Southwest Louisiana business leaders Thursday that he is optimistic about Louisiana’s future because it has a stable revenue source for the next seven years.

During a roundtable discussion at Sowela Technical Community College, Edwards talked about the state’s economic picture, progress on replacing the Interstate 10 bridge, implementing tolls and the effect of criminal justice reform measures.

The Legislature’s June approval of a 0.45-cent sales tax renewal that lasts until 2025 was a major step forward, Edwards said. The current budget spared cuts to colleges and universities and fully funded TOPS. He said the link between higher education and economic development is “stronger than it’s ever been.”

“We cannot cut higher education and think we’re going to have a workforce that people are going to want to invest in,” Edwards said. 

Neil Aspinwall, Sowela chancellor, said he has spent “every spring” over the last several years worrying about whether there would be severe cuts.

“You’ve allowed us to breathe now and plan,” Aspinwall said.

Replacing the I-10 bridge is “very much on our radar,” Edwards said. He said state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson plans to meet with officials and residents in the Westlake area to talk about alternatives for entrance and exit ramps that would avoid building in an area that was contaminated after a Conoco and Condea Vista ethylene dichloride spill in 1994.

The governor said his office wants the I-210 bridge repairs done as soon as possible.

“We’re going to spend that money now,” he said.

A new I-10 bridge is one of the few transportation projects that “does get a lot of interest in the private sector because of the traffic volume,” Edwards said.

Edwards said he expects the state to move toward implementing tolls on newly built roads and bridges. He said officials are waiting to see how residents respond to paying tolls to partly fund the replacement of the Belle Chasse Tunnel and Perez Bridge in Plaquemines Parish. The Times-Picayune reported in June that tolls will cover roughly $39 million of the $122 million project.

“The politics around getting local folks to support a toll are very difficult,” Edwards said. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”

One reason tolls are needed, Edwards said, is the state’s 30-year-old gasoline tax. Of the state’s 20-cent tax, 16 cents go to state highways maintained by the DOTD.

“If you don’t find new ways to pay for projects, you’re just not going to deliver,” he said.

The goal, Edwards said, is to “contribute as much public sector money as possible,” with tolls being “the smallest component.”

Edwards said he is encouraged by the 10 criminal justice reforms state lawmakers approved last year. This year, Oklahoma passed Louisiana as having the nation’s highest incarceration rate.

“I’m excited about that,” he said. “We’re number two, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”

The governor said the state is taking steps to invest money into drug treatment, education or mental health services so released inmates don’t end up back behind bars.

Replacing the I-10 bridge is ‘very much on our radar.’

Gov. John Bel Edwards

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