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La. DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson speaks during a meeting of the Governor's Task Force on Transportation Infrastructure Investment Wednesday, September 28, 2016, at the LITE Center in Lafayette, La.

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

In a first  for Louisiana, state transportation officials announced Monday they will solicit input from private firms to fast track major improvements on Interstate 10 in the Baton Rouge area.

Officials also said the request will make good on Gov. John Bel Edwards' campaign promise to find innovative ways to tackle the state's road and bridge problems, including a $13 billion backlog.

"Private investors have their eyes on Louisiana and are eager to invest here," state Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson said in a prepared statement.

"These innovative financing methods have worked in other states that have invested in infrastructure," Wilson said. 

He added in an interview, "We are serious about infrastructure. We are serious about long-term solutions."

The stretch of I-10 targeted for improvements is the source of daily complaints from motorists, and is considered one of the most congested sections of interstate in the state.

Projects could include the widening of I-10 from the Mississippi River Bridge to the I-10/I-12 split; work on the Pecue Interchange and widening I-10 between La. Hwy. 415 and La. 1.

Also, work on the La. 415 interchange in West Baton Rouge Parish as well as improvements to interchanges at the La. 30 in Gonzales and La. 22 near Sorrento, are on the $600 million list.

Those and other projects are being called the I-10 Capital Corridor Improvements.

Any such agreements between the state and private companies are known as public/private partnerships, or P3s in transportation jargon.

They generally consist of private firms supplying the money for construction in exchange for long-term payments from the state, such as toll revenue.

However, firms could also reap dividends on their investments through yearly payments from state, federal or other sources, depending on the financing plan.

"We will make payments to them," Wilson said.

Companies that do such projects are part of the global market.

A task force named by Edwards, which finished its work in December, said public/private partnerships should be pursued to help trim longstanding road and bridge problems. The panel also said the state needs another $700 million per year to start trimming Louisiana's $13 billion backlog, and its $16 billion list of "mega" projects like a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge south of the current "new" bridge.

However, exactly what the governor will recommend during the 2017 Legislature is unclear. 

A state gasoline tax hike of 23 cents per gallon would be needed if that was the sole source of nearly $700 million per year in new transportation dollars.

In addition, the state faces another budget shortfall of $400 million or more for the financial year that begins July 1.

The session starts on April 10.

Wilson said Monday's announcement will not affect what  Edwards recommends to the Legislature on transportation.

What  state officials are sending out is called a Request for Information, or RFI, aimed at testing interest in firms teaming with the state and, if so, which projects and how the private companies think those contracts should look. Officials of the firms will be asked whether they have done similar work, what the initial financial arrangements would be and what would be the minimum time needed to submit such a proposal for I-10 work.

Responses are due by March 31.

The answers will help state officials decide on future solicitations for work on I-10 in East and West Baton Rouge parishes and Ascension Parish.

DOTD won authority to solicit interest from private companies from a 2016 state law pushed by the Edwards administration.

"This is the first step in positioning the state to leverage private sector resources in delivering major enhancements to the I-10 Capitol Corridor," Edwards said, also in a prepared statement.

"We aren't likely to have the revenue needed to make a P3 work for the entire corridor today, but we will be ready to advance such a partnership if the Legislature acts in a meaningful way to fund transportation during the upcoming regular session," he said.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said Monday DOTD's proposal is worth exploring.

"I think we need to look at all the options," said Cortez, who was a member of the task force.

"Ultimately in the P3 you have to have a governmental funding source," he said. "But in many cases the private sector can do it maybe more effective and more efficient."

The announcement could spur legislative interest in finding dollars for transportation if they could make a public/private partnership reality, and speed work on high-profile projects.

How to repair Louisiana's roads and bridges has sparked pleas for bold steps versus political realities about tax hikes, especially when other state services are facing major cuts.

Gasoline and other tax hikes require the approval of two thirds of the House and Senate.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, said DOTD's plan holds possibilities.

"Obviously we are going to have to start thinking outside the box," Havard said. 'It is an opportunity."

Said Wilson, "We are asking the public and that industry to tell us what will be attractive."

The widening of I-10 between the "new" bridge and the I-10/12 split would cost between $350 million and $400 million.

It has been discussed off and on for more than a decade.

The aim is to ease backups on one of Baton Rouge's most congested corridors.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.