Accident with injuries closes Belle Chasse Tunnel early Monday; all lanes now open _lowres

Photo provided by Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office -- A multiple-vehicle crash in injuries shut down southbound lanes in the Bell Chasse Tunnel on Monday morning, May 16, 2016.

With a bipartisan thank-you to President Donald Trump, Louisiana leaders in Congress and the State Capitol have snagged a significant federal grant to build a new bridge at Belle Chasse across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

The new bridge will require tolls to pay for the public-private partnership that will enable the $122 million project, but $45 million comes from a federal grant under Trump’s new push for infrastructure improvements across the nation.

Gov. John Bel Edwards applauded the federal administration for the grant.

The bridge and tunnel now in use date from the 1950s, so it is good news that the project is underway at last.

"While tolling is not my first choice in addressing our infrastructure woes, it is certainly a tool at our disposal that we should consider," Edwards said.

It’s also a first for the state for what is referred to in the transportation industry as P3s, or public-private partnership, in which state and federal dollars are combined with private funds for construction. The state highway department will pick a private partner, which would make its money back by maintaining the bridge through a contract with the state. Private firms get involved to ensure a long-term revenue stream from the contract; the tolls would pay for operation and maintenance.

The Department of Transportation and Development earlier won some new federal funds for a major set of projects for the state, including the Belle Chasse tunnel replacement. Those include Interstate access for Barksdale Air Force Base in north Louisiana, the Interstate 10 bottleneck in Baton Rouge and an exit for the enlarged New Orleans airport terminal. All are important to travel.

In every case, DOTD and the state leadership, as well as congressional leaders, deserve credit for advancing critical infrastructure projects.

Nevertheless, Louisiana’s outstanding list of highway needs is very long, totaling into the billions. We could get a dozen of the awards the size of that for the Belle Chasse project and still be far from meeting the transportation needs of the state.

Further, we like a saying of DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson: P3s are not P-frees. This kind of innovative financing is not appropriate for every project; most highway funding from the U.S. government requires a major state matching check; administration of a P3 project requires state staff for project work and for oversight of the taxpayers’ interests.

Louisiana’s basic funding source for infrastructure is gasoline taxes and those have not been increased since the 1980s. Inflation has eroded the construction capacity of the state.

It’s a great thing when the state gets a leg up with a significant grant like this from the Trump administration, but the ultimate solutions to our chronic transportation woes are dependent on action in the Legislature to bring the gasoline tax into closer alignment with the state’s needs in concrete and asphalt.