staff photo

Advocate staff file photo.

The largest transportation bill in the past 30 years won final approval Tuesday when the Louisiana House approved a $690 million spending plan, including a long-sought project near the Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge.

The vote was 90-11, sending the bill to the governor.

The legislation, House Bill 578, provides funds for 10 projects statewide, including work in New Orleans, Lafayette and far south Louisiana. The work will be paid for by overhauling how the state spends settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill.

The legislation represents the largest investment in roads and bridges since the Legislature in 1989 approved a ballot measure called the Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development, or TIMED. Voters then endorsed the plan — a 4-cent hike in the state gas tax to finance 16 projects, including construction of the John James Audubon Bridge that links New Roads and St. Francisville.

The original price-tag for TIMED was $1.4 billion, which later skyrocketed to more than $5 billion and two of the projects remain unfinished. It is the largest transportation program in state history.

The latest measure was sponsored by state Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen and Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma.

Magee said the bill was aimed at projects that are shovel ready and that would benefit entire regions. "There is not a single project in this bill in my district or in my parish," he told the House.

The bill began in part as a bid to use $125 million to build the La. Hwy. 415 connector in West Baton Rouge Parish, which will be a 3-mile flyover between the La. 415/Lobdell exit on Interstate 10 and a point on La. Hwy. 1 between Port Allen and Plaquemine. It has been talked about and planned for nearly half a century as a way to ease bridge and La. 1 traffic tie-ups.

However the proposal morphed into a $690 million plan in the Senate Finance Committee, then won lopsided approval in the Senate on Monday.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said earlier he was inclined to sign the measure when it included two projects, including $150 million for construction of an 8-mile stretch of La. 1 between Golden Meadow and Leeville that is prone to flooding. Shauna Sanford, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Tuesday Edwards is still leaning toward signing the bill but will evaluate it when it reaches his desk.

The governor has repeatedly praised the use of innovative financing to launch transportation improvements amid Louisiana's $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

Shawn Wilson, Edwards' transportation lieutenant, offered qualified praise for the legislation after Tuesday's vote. "I am excited that they found a way to fund some of our long-term projects that we needed," said Wilson, who is secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.

"I just want to make it very clear that this is a jump start on the larger issues of transportation," he said. "This does not solve the ongoing need for additional revenue."

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

The $690 million in projects spelled out in the bill is the equivalent of raising the gas tax by 23 cents per gallon for one year.

The state gets $53 million per year for 13 years under the settlement.

The projects targeted include La. 415 connector, $125 million; La. 1, $150 million; I-49 south in Lafayette, $150 million; I-49 in Shreveport, $100 million; rural road and bridge repairs, $40 million; $15 million to widen Hooper Road between Sullivan and Greenwell Springs Road and the purchase of two cranes for the Port of New Orleans, $20 million.

Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, who helped insert the Hooper Road addition, said the widening is part of a larger project that will eventually relieve traffic on I-12 by about 30,000 cars and trucks per day.

The bill would also provide $50 million to upgrade La. Hwy. 3241 off I-12 in St. Tammany Parish, and create a four-lane road to Bush. It is one of the two unfinished projects promised voters 30 years ago.

The $690 million would generally help pay for bonds and other borrowing costs needed to make the projects reality.

During the brief House discussion, state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, said northeast Louisiana was the lone region left out of the spending.

Magee said Sens. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro and Francis Thompson, D-Delhi worked hard to include the $40 million for rural roads and bridges, both priorities in their areas.

"There is something in here for everybody," Magee told the House.

Morris voted "no" on Magee's motion to go along with the Senate changes.

The legislation would replace a 2014 law that spelled out how the Deepwater Horizon settlement funds are spent.

Under the current plan 45% goes to the Medicaid Trust Fund, 45% to the rainy day fund and 10% to the Health Trust Fund.

Aside from TIMED road and bridge projects statewide got a boost from surplus dollars after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.

However, those additions were spread out over several years rather than being spelled out in a single bill.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.