Businessman has plan for financing bridges
Jim Bernhard, a successful Louisiana businessman, has come up with a plan that would finance a new bridge across the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge. It’s called a public-private partnership that allows private firms to help finance public projects in exchange for a long-term revenue stream from the state, plus a profit.
A similar effort could also be a solution to financing a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles.
Legislators authorized the financing plan in 2001. Bernhard told the Press Club of Baton Rouge his company — Bernhard Capital Partners — would be willing to help underwrite the cost of a new Mississippi River bridge expected to cost $1 billion and said he believes other firms would be interested in participating.
Bernhard said voters in Ascension, East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Livingston and West Baton Rouge parishes would have to agree to tax themselves to finance better roads leading to and from the bridge. The Advocate said state Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, is leading an effort to do just that.
Voters in East Baton Rouge Parish last Saturday approved a half-cent sales tax increase to finance $912 million in road projects by a margin of 61-to-39 percent. Bernhard said that demonstrates voters there know the traffic problems that exist are costly.
Although Bernhard’s plan is sound and has precedence across the country, Louisiana has a unique problem. Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the state has no way to repay the costs of a new bridge, even if someone offered to front the money.
Even so, Wilson said the state welcomed unsolicited proposals, and Bernhard had another suggestion. He said even though 2019 is an election year the Legislature should tackle the thorny idea of how to improve roads and bridges statewide.
A higher gasoline tax is one solution, but lawmakers turned a cold shoulder to that idea at their 2017 session. Bernhard said he wasn’t going to comment on what he thinks of that possibility.
"But it is something that can be financed," Bernhard said. "What I do for a living is finance infrastructure."
Bernhard ended his talk by stating the realities for bridges at Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. He said, "We need to move forward on it. It is not going to get any better."