Panel approves sweeping road, bridge improvements but unsure where funding will come from _lowres

Advocate file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- A DOTD sign warns drivers of congestion on westbound Interstate 10 into East Baton Rouge Parish by way of the Mississippi River Bridge, Friday, July 25, 2014 in West Baton Rouge.

The state is launching its first bid to dramatically improve Baton Rouge traffic with private help, less than two years after a similar push died with little fanfare.

But there's no comparison, said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development and one of the leaders of the latest effort.

"They are totally different," Wilson said of today's bid and the 2015 push for a high-speed route around the city called the Baton Rouge Urban Renewal and Mobility Plan, or BUMP.

In this case, he noted, it is the state soliciting private firms, not the other way around. In addition, the governor, now John Bel Edwards, is behind the latest plan, another big difference from the debate in 2015.

Wilson on Jan. 30 announced that the state is sending out requests for information from giant firms to consider partnering with the state on high-profile road projects in the Baton Rouge area.

That list includes widening Interstate 10 and accelerated work on I-10 interchanges at Pecue Lane and in Gonzales and Sorrento.

The arrangements, called public-private partnerships, or P3s, can launch stalled projects. Private companies do the building in exchange for a revenue stream, possibly over 40 years. The advantage for the state is that private firms do the work, offer schedule guarantees and absorb any cost overruns.

"The developer is incentivized to bring in innovation," said Bob Schmidt, a veteran Baton Rouge transportation consultant.

Firms also can make a profit of 10 percent or more through yearly payouts on projects that, in this case, could total $1 billion or more.

But a similar, private push to build an $800 million "inner loop" in Baton Rouge — BUMP — was submitted to the state in 2015 by worldwide engineering firm AECOM.

Nine months later, a state panel killed the proposal amid concerns that taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $400 million, which backers disputed.

Despite the fate of that plan, Wilson and others said a 2016 change in state law and other developments mean the latest proposal has a better chance of paying dividends.

"If the governor is behind it, I think there is a much greater chance of getting this through," said state Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge and a supporter of the 2015 effort for a public-private partnership to build BUMP.

Foil noted that, two years ago, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal was not involved in AECOM's proposal. The former governor also opposed tax hikes for transportation and other areas, which is crucial for the latest plan to have any chance.

In addition, the administration of then-Mayor-President Kip Holden opposed the proposal, mostly over concerns that it would kill efforts to build another "loop" around Baton Rouge that Holden backed.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Broome did not respond to a request for comment on the state's plan.

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, another promoter of BUMP, said the state's bid to entice private investment is worth pursuing.

"I am willing to try any and every opportunity to try to solve this problem," Carter said of traffic congestion. 

Schmidt said the state has to explore new approaches.

"The world is changing," he said. "We obviously can't keep up with our needs the way we have always done."

Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said in a prepared statement that his group backs the push for innovative financing "given the monumental traffic challenges" in south Louisiana.

U. S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican, also said the public/private partnership push has merit.

"We have to pull every tool out of the tool box to solve this crisis," Graves said.

Graves also said he is still perplexed the the BUMP proposal failed to advance two years ago.

AECOM is the sort of giant firm that could be interested in the state's trial balloon, which is called a Request for Information. The company is a Fortune 500 organization. Two years ago it claimed revenues of $19.5 billion.

AECOM also touted what it called public-private transportation success stories in other states, including a tollway in the Dallas area.

"We welcome AECOM," said Wilson, who was not DOTD secretary two years ago.

Wilson said one of the chief differences now compared to the BUMP proposal stems from a 2016 law sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. That measure gave the state the ability to solicit public-private partnerships.

Wilson compared the difference to a homeowner putting a house on the market instead of being approached, without prompting, to sell.

"One is solicited; one was unsolicited," he said. "I think this is much more strategic."

Two years ago, AECOM had to go through a little-known state panel called the Louisiana Transportation Authority instead of DOTD.

Kenneth Perret, a former top official of DOTD and now president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, said the newest push is a good mechanism for road improvements.

The crucial issue, Perret said, is whether the Legislature will find dollars for transportation in the 2017 regular session, which begins April 10. "The key is getting more state revenue," he said.

A task force named by Edwards, and led by Wilson, concluded in December that the state needs to spend another $700 million for state transportation needs.

Louisiana has a $13 billion backlog for rank-and-file improvements and a $16 billion list of "mega" projects, including a new bridge across the Mississippi River south of the current "new" bridge.

The plan is to divide any new money between maintenance and new projects.

The BUMP proposal two years ago also was hampered by the fact that only parts of the 23-mile corridor were on the priority plan used by DOTD.

The list of projects that could benefit from any public-private partnership today is topped by the widening of I-10 between the bridge and the split, up to $400 million.

Others include widening I-10 between La. 73 and La. 22; widening I-10 between La. 415 and La. 1; and improved interchanges at I-10 and La. 30 in Gonzales and I-10 and La. 22 near Sorrento.

Proposals could include all or some of those in DOTD's list, or even the BUMP.

Wilson said that, while a new Mississippi River bridge remains a priority, preliminary work is further along on the I-10 widening between the bridge and the I-10/12 split.

"It is both, not either or," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.