SHawn Wilson on panel 112119

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, second from right, and others Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, appeared on a panel to discuss road and bridge issues. The others are, from left of Wilson, Steve Hall, senior Vice President, American Council of Engineering Companies; Pat Forbes, executive director, Louisiana Office of Community Development; Bren Haase, executive director, Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and Fred Raiford, director of transportation and drainage, City of Baton Rouge. At far right is John Basilica, moderator, Vice President of HNTB.

Louisiana's transportation chief said Thursday that, while Gov. John Bel Edwards is willing to "swing hard for big projects," any future push to boost the state gas tax will depend on the willingness of state House and Senate leaders to get behind the politically volatile effort.

"The governor is committed to having that conversation," said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development and Edwards' lieutenant for roads and bridges.

A 2017 push by Wilson, and quietly backed by the governor, to boost the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon –  it would have raised about $510 million per year – died without a vote in the full House or Senate.

Opponents said that, despite pressing needs in Baton Rouge and elsewhere, voters were unwilling to pay more at the pump.

"He is committed to infrastructure," Wilson said of Edwards.

"He is not afraid to swing hard for big projects and big things," he said. 

"And as we saw in 2017 having just the governor can't get it done," Wilson said.

"And having a non-governor sponsored effort, as we saw in 2019, didn't even get a hearing," he added.

That effort, which would have gradually boosted the gas tax by 18 cents per gallon, or $540 million per year, was pushed unsuccessfully by the Louisiana Coalition to Fix Our Roads.

During the 2017 push Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego and House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, steered clear of the debate.

Wilson noted that, during Edwards' successful campaign for a second term, he said he would discuss the issue with legislative leaders to see if any consensus can be reached.

"He is also smart enough (to know) that, without support in the House and Senate from the leadership, it is just not going to happen," he said.

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

The tax has not changed in three decades.

However, any push to increase what motorists pay faces major hurdles.

Both the House and Senate will have new leaders in January, and whether Edwards can work with the next Senate and House speaker is unclear.

One candidate for Senate president is Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette.

Barras' selection in 2016, and the fact that Edwards' choice of Rep. Walt Leger III lost, hampered his relationship with Barras and the House for four years.

The governor worked well with veteran Alario, who like Barras is leaving the Legislature because of term limits.

However, the GOP will enjoy a supermajority in the Senate and is within two votes of the same in the House, which will likely hamper a Democratic governor on a wide range of fronts.

Also, the 2020 legislative session is limited to non-fiscal issues, which means the next opportunity would be 2021.

One other option would be for Edwards to call a special session in 2020, when his political capital is at its highest, to tackle state road and bridge needs.

Wilson made his comments during the annual meeting of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Louisiana, which includes 140 engineering firms in the state.

About 100 engineers and others attended the gathering.

Wilson said one of his challenges for 2020 is convincing some of the 64 new members of the Legislature – 44% of the total – on the need for road and bridge improvements.

He said some incoming lawmakers have expressed skepticism about transportation demands.

The DOTD secretary said part of his job is to "help them understand that there is a real need, that this does not just happen."

Louisiana's backlog of road and bridge needs has risen to $14.3 billion.

Key projects underway, including the $380 million widening of Interstate 10 from La. 415 to the I-10/12 split, are being financed by federal bonds, not the state fund that traditionally finances road and bridge improvements.

Wilson said that, of the state's $940 million transportation spending plan for the current financial year, $380 million will be used for road and bridge preservation.

No spending is planned in additional capacity – new roads – using the Transportation Trust Fund , the customary source.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.