La. Gov. John Bel Edwards

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday state budget problems mean it would be "very difficult" to win legislative approval for a $700 million tax and fee hike for roads and bridges.

The increase was recommended last month by a task force named by the governor, and the issue is expected to be debated during the 2017 regular session.

Edwards, in an hour-long meeting with the editorial board of The Advocate, said while state transportation needs are tremendous, ongoing state budget problems will make it hard for a major boost in road and bridge spending.

While the task force did not spell out a specific way to raise $700 million annually, it said state gas taxes are the most reliable way to generate dollars.

Any such increase would require the approval of two thirds of the House and Senate during a session that begins April 10.

"Is it going to be hard to raise the gas tax? Absolutely," Edwards told reporters and editors.

The governor made his comments during a gathering where he also said a special session is possible in February because of state financial problems.

More budget woes are expected for the financial year that begins July 1.

Louisiana has a $13.1 billion backlog of road and bridge needs and a $16 billion list of proposed mega projects, including a new bridge in Baton Rouge south of the current "new" Mississippi River bridge.

A new bridge would cost more than $1 billion.

Traffic on and near the current bridge is a daily source of complaints from motorists in the Baton Rouge area.

"There is no place in the state that has a greater need than Baton Rouge," Edwards said.

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon now, including 20 cents in state gasoline taxes.

An increase of 23 cents per gallon would be needed to raise nearly $700 million per year.

The panel also suggested an array of possible fee hikes, but that revenue is modest compared to any gasoline tax boost .

Each penny of the state gas tax raises about $30 million per year.

Edwards said he would prefer submitting a boost  in funding to voters statewide if it appeared unlikely the Legislature would endorse a major increase.

However, some leaders of the pro-transportation drive are reluctant to submit the issue to voters for fear that it would be rejected.

"Maybe we should give them the opportunity," the governor said.

Edwards said the need for more transportation spending is obvious.

The governor noted that 5 cents of the 20-cent state gasoline tax is used to retire the bonds from a 1990 statewide bond issue called TIMED.

He said that 15 cents has a buying power of 7 cents in today's economy.

"And we have significant needs," Edwards said. "I hope we can find the will to move forward."

House Transportation Committee Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, has said approving a major gasoline tax increase would be difficult in the Legislature and would be rejected by voters.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said last week rival budget needs are the key obstacle in the drive to boost transportation aid.

Wilson is an Edwards' lieutenant and was co-chair of the task force.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.