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Both eastbound, left, and westbound traffic comes to a crawl during rush hour on Interstate 10 at the Mall of Louisiana, Sept. 15, in Baton Rouge

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

The state's $13 billion backlog of needed road and bridge work is mostly for highway work, heavily focused on south Louisiana, and will play a key role in the upcoming debate on how to improve transportation in Louisiana.

New lanes and other highway improvements account for $10 billion of the backlog, according to a report by the state Department of Transportation and Development. Bridge repairs account for the other $3 billion.

In addition, just four of the state's nine highway districts account for 62 percent of the needed highway upgrades, with the Baton Rouge area alone making up 20 percent of the total.

The other three districts are in the New Orleans, Lafayette and Hammond areas.

DOTD officials are planning to discuss the figures next week, just ahead of a crucial meeting of Gov. John Bel Edwards' transportation task force.

The panel, which next meets on Dec. 9, is supposed to come up with options to finance road and bridge improvements, and a hike in the state's gasoline tax is likely to be one of the recommendations.

Backers hope to come up with enough funding sources to raise an additional $600 million or so per year for transportation.

However, any such push would spark controversy in the Legislature next year, with two-thirds majorities required for any tax increases.

What makes up the often-cited backlog is important, in part because it is separate from another, $16 billion list of projects getting lots of the attention.

Erecting a new $1 billion bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, which tops the wish list of area leaders, is not part of the backlog.

The bridge is on a separate tally of "mega projects" that would compete with the backlog if more dollars are raised for transportation.

So are expanding Interstate 10 from the "new" Mississippi River bridge, $320 million; widening I-10 in New Orleans from Williams Boulevard to Veterans Boulevard, $150 million; and expanding Airline Highway to six lanes between Gonzales and Cedarcrest Avenue, $125 million.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said new money would allow the state to tackle both the backlog and the list of mega projects.

Wilson also said the backlog is not a wish list.

He said the total rose from $12.7 billion to $13.1 billion in the past year even after the state spent $1.2 billion for construction and management.

That means the state needed to spend another $400 million just to keep the list of deferred projects at $12.7 billion.

"The backlog is a needs list," Wilson said. "The wish list is the new bridge."

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said he has asked DOTD officials about the list of delayed work.

"They claim it is a concrete number," Cortez said. "It is probably less concrete in people's minds, but there is no question that we have a need and we have a backlog."

"Whether it is $14 billion or $11 billion, we could have an argument about that," he added.

Of the $10 billion in deferred highway needs, adding new lanes and the like accounts for about $6 billion.

That work – called capacity in DOTD parlance – is for projects like the recently announced plan to widen I-10 from Highland Road in Baton Rouge to La. 73 in suburban Ascension Parish.

The other big portion of the delayed highway work is for resurfacing – $3.1 billion.

Wilson said roads need resurfacing after about 12 years of use, followed by a more thorough revamp at the 20-year mark.

About $70 million per year would allow for regular upkeep, he said; that is about twice what the state spends now.

Bridges make up $3 billion of the list of deferred work, including $2.7 billion for those rated as "structurally deficient."

Despite the ominous label, that means some elements of the bridge have been damaged or deteriorated, not that the bridges are unsafe, state officials said.

Louisiana is one of a handful of states whose list of structurally deficient bridges rose in recent years.

The backlog has mostly held steady for the past decade.

The lone exception was between 2006 and 2008, when it dropped from $14 billion to $12.7 billion. Federal stimulus dollars and federal aid after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were key factors in that drop.

Taxpayers realize there is a backup of road and bridge needs, officials said.

"We actually hear people saying, 'What are we going to do about the backlog?' " said Wilson, fresh off public hearings statewide.

Cortez agreed. "It is going to be part  of the debate," he said. 

House Transportation Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, made the same point. "People understand that we need to do something," he said.

The key hurdle, Havard said, is convincing voters that the state will spend transportation dollars on transportation after years of diverting money to other uses to balance the budget.

"The biggest problem is the trust factor," he said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.