Area lawmakers express support for bridge plan

Several state lawmakers representing Southwest Louisiana said on Tuesday that they fully support a plan to have a private company pay for design and construction of a new Interstate 10-Calcasieu River bridge and repaying the cost through electronic tolls.

“We’re moving forward with this,” Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, said during the Family and Youth Counseling Agency’s legislative breakfast at L’Auberge Casino Resort.

A local task force recently introduced the proposal to build a new bridge through an innovative public/private partnership, or P3. The plan requires approval by the state Department of Transportation and Development, along with the Legislature.

Freshman Rep. Stuart Moss, R-Sulphur, said he has electronic toll tags when he visits family in Texas.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Moss said of the tolls. “The toll is saving me time, gas, money, hours.”

Johns commended the I-10 task force for its work on the concept. He said the effort has integrity because task force members signed a pledge to not benefit financially from a new bridge being built.

“These are people who really put their heart and soul into this project,” Johns said.

Johns said he will sponsor legislation that requires any settlement proceeds from the state’s lawsuit related to the 1994 ethylene dichloride spill underneath the current I-10 bridge to be dedicated solely to a new bridge.

Rep. A.B. Franklin, D-Lake Charles, said the current I-10 bridge has outlived its 50-year lifespan. The bridge was built in 1952. He said the state’s $800 million transportation budget is far less than its $14 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.

“We cannot continue to keep going back and forth across that bridge,” said Franklin, who is term-limited after this year. “To me, I think it’s getting to be dangerous. We need to find some kind of way to take care of that.”

Johns and Rep. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, said they support an increase in the state’s gasoline tax. However, Johns said it will not likely be approved this session because lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards are seeking re-election. Currently, the state has a 38.4-cent tax per gallon of gasoline, a rate that has remained unchanged for more than two decades.

Other issues

Teacher pay raises is another issue lawmakers said they will likely consider this year. Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Moss Bluff, said all of the lawmakers he has spoken with support the idea. However, the solution remains up in the air.

“Are we going to cut,” Dwight asked. “I don’t think anyone wants to raise taxes. If you cut, where are you going to cut? Is this a one-time adjustment or is it forever for them?”

Johns said lawmakers will consider legislation that would allow sports betting in Louisiana. He said $6 billion nationwide was wagered on this year’s Super Bowl, most of it illegally.

“We are already seeing some movement of people that are going to Mississippi because they do have legalized sports betting today,” Johns said.

Last year, lawmakers approved legislation sponsored by Johns to allow riverboat casinos to become land-based. He said the two riverboats in Baton Rouge are in talks with the Gaming Control Board, and the Isle of Capri Casino “has had some conversations” with the board about going land-based.

Abraham said he plans to again file PILOT legislation, or payment in lieu of future taxes. The bill, which failed in the Legislature twice before, would give locals the opportunity to negotiate a plan with industries where the companies would provide some property tax money up front to help pay for critical needs in the community. After the 10-year Industrial Tax Exemption Program period ends, industries would pay less in property taxes. Abraham said the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry supports the measure.

“It’s just a reasonable approach to get money for the locals and also give a break to the existing industries,” Abraham said.

Quiet session

The session, which lasts from April 8 until June 6, is a fiscal one, meaning lawmakers can only file five regular bills.

Several lawmakers on the panel said they don’t expect any special sessions, especially with legislators seeking re-election or being term-limited. Johns said the Legislature will see “tremendous turnover,” with close to 60 House lawmakers leaving and at least 16 senators not returning.

“Theoretically, we could have a brand new majority in the Senate,” he said. “It’s going to be a whole new ballgame the next four years.”

After last year’s tumultuous session, lawmakers approved renewing .45 cents of an existing 1-cent state sales tax for seven years. Johns said the move has helped stabilize the budget, along with the state’s bond rating.

The governor’s executive budget should be released within the next few weeks. Abraham said he believes the Revenue Estimating Conference will recognize the $300 million-plus in surplus, but the main issue lies in where those dollars will be spent. Last month, Edwards revealed plans to allocate $55 million in surplus to Louisiana’s coastal trust fund.

A constitutional convention has a “less than zero” chance of happening this session, according to Johns.””

Rendering of a modern technology wide span bridge, proposed by a task force dedicated to replacing the aging Interstate 10/Calcasieu River bridge, would include six lanes and pedestrian walkways.

Special to the American Press

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