Matassa Meets with DOTD.jpg

Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa, second from right, meets with Shawn Wilson, secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, second from left, speaking, and James Setze, executive director of the Capital Region Planning Commission, far left, on March 23 along with Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso, third from right, and Ken Dawson, chief administrative officer of Ascension Parish, far right.

Photo provided by Ascension Parish government

Federal planners are watching the Louisiana Legislature to see how much they can expect the state to kick in to pay for new roads and bridges.

On Monday, Jamie Setze, head of the Capital Region Planning Commission, told members of the Baton Rouge Press Club that as he and the leaders of five parishes assemble their pitch for federal funds, the U.S. government is going to come back with one question: "What did the state lift?"

Louisiana legislators have discussed raising the gasoline tax by 17 cents a gallon or upping the sales tax by half a cent to raise $500 million or $400 million a year for transportation, respectively. 

State money is used to match federal grants. Localities have to contribute sometimes, too, such as for the downtown-LSU tram currently in discussion.

South Louisiana historically has had trouble getting everyone on the same page and convincing all agencies to buy in at the same time, Setze said. As a result, the region gets funding for only 25 percent of proposals. Other states, like Florida, have much more construction, though that state has decentralized a lot of its road maintenance and in exchange allowed counties to vote on their own gasoline taxes, which isn't the case in Louisiana.

Before federal money can be awarded for a project, it has to be enshrined in the committee's plan. Setze and leaders from East Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes are currently performing the quadrennial update and trying to decide whether to prioritize a new bridge or interstate expansion or other traffic endeavor.

The issues will also be discussed Tuesday during a transportation summit to be attended by Congressmen Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from New Orleans who also represents part of the Baton Rouge area, plus state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson and Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

And while the regional plan is primarily focused on roads, it also looks at other proposals, like the tram and the Baton Rouge to New Orleans commuter train. Both projects are feasible if the city helps pay for the tram and the state ponies up some money for the train, Setze said.

As for other public transportation around Baton Rouge, he said the current plan assumes the Capital Area Transit System tax will be renewed, though he quickly added he didn't vote for it and the matter can be reconsidered in four years during the next update. He also said CATS buses present "a big issue" as Government Street slims to three lanes, because no one designed any pullouts.

Planners have been gathering data about how they expect the population around Baton Rouge to grow in the next 25 years and are preparing to bring their findings to the public over the summer for more meetings about future infrastructure plans, Setze said. However, past forecasts showed growth exactly in the areas that flooded last summer, so planners are trying to determine how that may affect their course of action.

Other planning concerns include stopping traffic back-ups around schools at dismissal, developing Plank Road as a commuter artery and beginning to talk about how driverless cars may affect traffic in the next quarter-century, Setze said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.