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Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, checks messages on his cell phone at his desk on the House floor before the House convened in April 2017.

Despite steep odds, one of the leaders of a push to increase Louisiana's gasoline tax said Monday winning legislative approval for the $940 million plan is feasible.

"This is the year," said Erich Ponti, president of a group of about 75 trade organizations and others called the Louisiana Coalition To Fix Our Roads. 

"It doesn't matter that it is an election year," Ponti told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

Motorists now pay 38.4 cents per gallon in taxes, including 20 cents in state charges. Under legislation backed by the group, the state gas tax would gradually rise by 18 cents per gallon, $540 million per year.

That means motorists would eventually pay 56.4 cents per gallon.

In addition, backers envision gradually gaining portions of a "temporary" sales tax — .045 percent — and eventually using about $400 million of it for roads and bridges  — $940 million in all.

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, is the lone sponsor of the group's legislation, which is House Bill 542.

Carter was also the handler of a 2017 proposed state gasoline tax increase — $510 million per year — that died without a vote on the state House or Senate floor.

"Providing safe roads and bridges are a vital function of state government and it's time for us in the Legislature to start making our citizens' safety a priority," Carter said in a statement Monday.

The bill requires the support of two-thirds of the state House and Senate, always a major political challenge and especially so in an election year.

In addition, the proposal has received a cool reception from the administration of Gov. John Bel Edwards, which backed the 2017 gasoline tax push.

One provision in Carter's bill would gradually move $240 million now used for operations of the state Department of Transportation and Development from one state fund into a roads-and-bridges-only account.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for DOTD, said last week that would force officials to find another source of funding for day-to-day operations.

Wilson has also said he doubts the Legislature will hold a serious debate on any gas tax boost in 2019.

Some signs suggest that Ponti's group is merely hoping to start debate on a gasoline tax increase this year, then make a more serious push in 2021 when tax issues are back on the table.

Literature distributed by the group says its goal is to launch a 20-month "public awareness and educational campaign," encourage citizens to insist on lawmakers making roads and bridges a priority and elect a governor, House and Senate members who will back a gas tax hike.

But Ponti, a former House member himself, insisted that supporters are not writing off 2019, and plan to make April 23 a "Transportation Advocacy Day" at the State Capitol with the hope that legislators will address the state's road and bridge conditions.

"We battle with this every day and it isn't getting any better," he said. "It doesn't have to be this way."

Two years ago, lawmakers opposed to the 17-cent gasoline tax increase said they were reflecting the views of constituents.

If approved, Carter's bill would boost the state gas tax by 6 cents per gallon initially — $180 million per year.

Starting in 2021, the tax would rise by 2 cents per year in alternate years for a decade — $360 million annually by 2031.

Carter's bill would use 60 percent of the new revenue for road and bridge preservation.

The other 40 percent would go for high-profile projects, including construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, which saw major tie-ups last week amid construction on La. 1 in West Baton Rouge Parish.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.