Rep. Graves calls for state to direct more gas tax revenues to Baton Rouge-area highway projects _lowres

Garret Graves

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves said Friday the state needs to build more credibility with the public on road and bridge issues before any gasoline tax hike is sought.

"You have to demonstrate that the funds would be used to solve the problems we have," said Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican.

The lawmaker, who is up for re-election next  month, also said he expects Gov. John Bel Edwards' task force on transportation to recommend just such an increase later this year.

Graves made his comments during and after a gathering of business leaders, state lawmakers and transportation planners who are trying to come up with a priority list for Baton Rouge area transportation needs.

The governor's 18-member task force is set to focus on area transportation issues on Oct. 14.

U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, who also addressed the group, said Baton Rouge traffic headaches are a statewide issue, and that travelers often map vacation plans to avoid the new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge on Friday afternoons.

"People in Louisiana, throughout Louisiana, talk about the traffic infrastructure, or lack of it," Cassidy said. "It is amazing."

Motorists here pay 38.4 cents per gallon in state and federal gasoline taxes.

The state tax is 20 cents per gallon, which is 41st in the nation.

In addition, the state faces a nearly $13 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, with no easy political solutions in sight.

Any task force recommendations, including a possible gasoline tax increase, are expected to be a key issue during the 2017 regular legislative session.

Graves emphasized that the state needs more money for transportation, especially in the Baton Rouge area.

"This region is going to demand all the dollars," he said. "This area has the most traffic (troubles) by far."

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But Graves, while complimentary of state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson, said only 11 percent of Transportation Trust Fund dollars – a key source of road and bridge aid – is used for projects.

He said state transportation problems stem from years of a "politicized process" on where and what  work was done.

Graves said two recent project announcements will be well received by the public.

One would expand Interstate 10 to three lanes in each direction between Highland Road in Baton Rouge and La. Hwy. 73 in Ascension Parish.

The pricetag is $60 million.

The other would provide a new, $20 million exit off I-110 near downtown Baton Rouge to reduce backups at the Washington Street exit, a notorious traffic choke point.

Even with the new exit the Washington Street exit will remain open, DOTD officials said this week.

"Some of the impediments are being addressed," Graves said. "You have built credibility with the public."

Cassidy, also a Baton Rouge Republican who formerly held the congressional seat now occupied by Graves, said problems on the new Mississippi River bridge were the overwhelming topic during a recent town hall meeting in West Baton Rouge Parish.

Construction of a new Mississippi River bridge south of the current one is touted by some officials as the one project that would provide major traffic relief in Baton Rouge.

Such a bridge would cost more than $1 billion.

Cassidy said any such structure should include bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

"That would be a singular project for the capital region," he said.

The gathering was held by a group called CRISIS, which stands for Capitol Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.