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State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Winnfield, left, is sponsoring a bill that would gradually boost Louisiana's gas tax $660 million per year. 

The sponsor of a bill that would gradually boost Louisiana's gas tax by $660 million per year said Monday he is confident the effort is feasible in 2021 despite the failure of previous efforts to go anywhere.

State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, who is pushing the measure, said he has traveled the state meeting with lawmakers and held multiple Zoom calls with economic development groups, Rotary Clubs and other civic organizations.

"The response has been tremendous," McFarland told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

However, state transportation chief Shawn Wilson last month stopped just short of dismissing chances for approval of a gas tax hike this year.

He said recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be the top issue of the legislative session, which begins April 12.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who backed the gas tax increase pushed by Wilson in 2017, has said he doubts the legislation can attract the two-thirds majority needed in the House and Senate.

McFarland said raising the gas tax would help the state recover from the pandemic by creating construction jobs needed to launch major projects funded by the higher rates.

That list includes construction of a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge and the widening of Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge to six lanes between the I-10/12 split and the Mississippi state line.

"This is a perfect opportunity," he said.

McFarland's plan would boost the gas tax by 10 cents initially – $300 million per year – and 22 cents by 2033 – $660 million per year.

He said it includes needed accountability measures absent from previous bills, including legislative audits that would be turned over to a panel of lawmakers and others.

Louisiana has a $15 billion backlog of road and bridge repairs and a $13 billion list of proposed projects.

McFarland said the new revenue would be split, with 60% for road and bridge preservation in both urban and rural areas and 40% for new capacity.

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, has expressed skepticism on whether any gas tax hike is feasible in 2021.

McFarland said he has kept both Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, updated on his efforts to round up support for his plan. "They have encouraged me to continue to go out and work on this reform measure," he said.

Boosting the gas tax would require the support of 70 of 105 House members and 26 of 39 state senators.

The 2017 effort, which would have raised the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon, emerged from a House committee before dying without a vote on the House floor.

A 2019 push died with little fanfare.

Motorists now pay 38.4 cents per gallon, including 20 cents in state charges.

McFarland said Louisiana's gas tax is the seventh lowest in the nation and that Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama have all raised their rates recently.

He said a higher gas tax would also generate an additional $780 million per year in federal matching funds initially, and more later.

"My bill brings a balance of reform with revenue," McFarland said.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.