A new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge is doable but would require support from voters in five area parishes, the founder of the Shaw Group said Monday.
Jim Bernhard, who now heads a private equity firm, made his comments to the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
Last week Bernhard said his company – Bernhard Capital Partners – would be willing to help underwrite the cost of a bridge, which would be more than $1 billion.
He said he thinks other firms would also be interested in providing equity and other support for any such project.
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The businessman said tolls would be needed to help finance the improvements, and repay private investors over 30 or 40 years.
However, Bernhard said voters in East Baton Rouge and four other parishes would also have to agree to tax themselves to finance better roads leading to and from the bridge.
Under state law, voters in East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston and Iberville parishes could approve tax or fee hikes to finance road and bridge upgrades.
Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, is leading an effort to do just that.
Bernhard said it was encouraging to see voters in East Baton Rouge Parish on Saturday approve a half-cent sales tax hike to finance $912 million in road projects. Bernhard, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, did a TV advertisement that urged voters to endorse the plan.
The roads tax was approved by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent. Voters also endorsed a property tax hike to finance a psychiatric facility called The Bridge Center. The mental health center captured 68 percent of the vote.
"I mean, that was amazing Baton Rouge has chosen to lead the way in the state, to be the city we want to be," Bernhard said. "Now we want the state to move forward and be the state we want to have."
Previous efforts to strike an agreement among area parishes to build a loop or bypass around Baton Rouge died amid bickering over preferred routes and other issues.
Bernhard also said that, despite the fact 2019 is an election year, the Legislature should tackle the thorny topic of how to improve roads and bridges statewide.
An effort to approve a gas tax increase, possibly next year, is being led by former Baton Rouge Republican state Rep. Erich Ponti.
A push to boost the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon, which would raise $510 million per year, died in the Legislature last year without a vote in either chamber.
"I am not going to comment on what I think of that," Bernhard said.
Louisiana has a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.
Traffic congestion has become a "cancer" in the Baton Rouge area, and a new bridge across the Mississippi River is the top need, the leader of…
Motorists who use the bridge and nearby interstates have long complained about daily backups.
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Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said last week the state has no way to repay the costs of a new bridge, even if someone offered to front the money.
Bernhard said he has not had any detailed talks with Wilson about his bridge plans.
"But it is something that can be financed," he said "What I do for a living is finance infrastructure."
Bernhard said he watches backups on the bridge daily from his 10th floor office in downtown Baton Rouge.
"We need to move forward on it," he said. "It is not going to get any better."
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