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Traffic zips by as crews have moved to the middle of the interstate as work continues on the I-10/Pecue Lane interchange. Announcement of the start of Phase 2 of the Pecue Lane project, which is an interchange at Pecue Lane and I-10 to allow traffic to enter and leave the byways Friday Sept. 13, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La.

Gov. John Bel Edwards says, despite the fact Louisiana's gas tax has remained unchanged for nearly three decades, his administration has made major strides in improving roads and bridges through creative financing.

"I am the first to tell you I want to do more," he said.

But Edwards' two Republican rivals for governor, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, say the state's transportation system is a mess and Democrat Edwards bears much of the blame.

"Businesses are literally picking up and moving to Texas because they cannot transport their goods on our terrible roads and bridges," Abraham said.

Louisiana has a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

How to resolve it has sparked a clear split among the three leading candidates for governor ahead of the Oct. 12 primary.

A 2017 bid backed by the Edwards administration to boost the state gas tax by 17 cents per gallon — amounting to $510 million per year — died without a vote in either chamber.

The state is tied for third nationally for going the longest without raising the gasoline tax, the key source of money for road and bridge improvements.

Asked if such an increase is inevitable, Edwards said, "Yes. I don't think there is any doubt about it. It is just a question of time."

Rispone disagrees.

"We won't be pursuing any increase in the gas tax," he said. "I won't betray the citizens with that."

Abraham said that, while he is not opposed to an increase, "It is not the first option."

The congressman argues that temporary sales tax hikes and other steps pushed by Edwards to tackle state budget problems total $7 billion.

"He has raised $7 billion, but he hasn't put one penny into infrastructure," Abraham said. "Not a major project has gotten completed under his watch," he said.

Edwards waves away the criticism, citing modest work that has been finished and noting that major projects take years to finish.

"I kind of laugh at Ralph when he says stuff like that," Edwards said. "It is silliness."

The governor said the state has to be innovative to move projects along, including the use of federal grants and landing unallocated federal dollars from other states.

Edwards has pushed four projects totaling $650 million through federal borrowing.

That includes the widening of Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge between the "new" Mississippi River bridge and the I-10/I-12 split and an interchange on I-10 at Loyola Drive in Kenner to speed access to the new airport terminal.

The governor also backed a $690 million spending plan earlier this year to finance 10 projects statewide by reallocating settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill.

That work includes $125 million to build the La. Hwy. 415 connector in West Baton Rouge Parish, $150 million for I-49 South in Lafayette and $20 million to buy two cranes for the Port of New Orleans.

A $72 million project to widen I-10 from Highland Road to La. Hwy. 73 in suburban Ascension Parish includes $40 million in unused federal aid from other states.

The state has collected more than $250 million in the past 3½ years in federal dollars that other states failed to allocate.

An $8.8 million plan to ease traffic problems near the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge by crafting a new, Terrace Avenue exit off I-110 South — expected to be finished next month — is being financed with federal dollars the state landed through a national competition.

Another $189 million is being spent on I-10 improvements between Lafayette and the Atchafalaya Basin bridge.

However, Rispone and Abraham contend the state needs a new approach to solving longstanding transportation problems, including public/private partnerships.

Motorists in Louisiana pay 38.4 cents per gallon in state and federal gas taxes, including 20 cents in state charges.

Rispone said the state is spending $130 million per year — the equivalent of more than four cents per gallon in yearly state gasoline tax revenue — for salaries and benefits for employees of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

He said those costs should be financed from Louisiana's general revenue fund, not the pot of money used to build roads and bridges, called the Transportation Trust Fund.

"That is the first thing we are going to go after," Rispone said.

Rispone claims that, when that money is combined with federal matching dollars, the state would have another $400 million per year for transportation improvements.

He also wants to direct about $500 million in capital outlay spending for infrastructure, bringing new dollars for roads and bridges to $900 million per year.

Edwards said the plan is flawed, in part because using general revenue dollars for DOTD salaries would trigger problems funding other key state services.

"That just creates a general revenue shortfall," the governor said. "That won't solve anything."

Abraham noted that what Edwards cites as one of his top transportation accomplishments is a plan that relies on federal bonds called Grant Anticipation Vehicle, or GARVEE bonds.

The state intends to use 10 percent of annual federal aid to pay off the bonds over a dozen years.

"You are borrowing from Peter to pay Paul," Abraham said. "That is not going to solve the problem with our infrastructure."

Abraham said of Louisiana's transportation system, "This is a crisis. It is not safe for our families. It is not safe for our businesses."

He said DOTD treats the fund that collects gas tax revenue "like an entitlement."

Abraham said that, if he is elected, one of his priorities would be to gather transportation experts from around the nation. "Scrub the budget at DOTD and then look at the options to how we fund this," he said.

Rispone said DOTD employs more workers than comparable agencies in neighboring states.

The Edwards administration countered that, in an annual report released by the Reason Foundation, Louisiana ranked sixth best nationally in administrative costs per mile.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.