Our Views: When it comes to highway ‘mega-projects,’ elephant now on the menu _lowres

Shawn Wilson.

A study touted as the forerunner to the most sweeping overhaul of Louisiana's roads and bridges in nearly 30 years may change because of the flood of 2016, the state's transportation chief said Wednesday.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said in some ways there is little to link flooding in south Louisiana with a possible hike in the state gasoline tax.

"But we are sensitive to the conditions of our people and the economics of a disaster," Wilson said in an interview. "It is never good."

Wilson, who is Gov. John Bel Edwards' transportation lieutenant, is co-chair of a task force named by the governor that was seen as a possible prelude to the biggest roads and bridges remake  since 1989.

Just last month top state officials said a hike in Louisiana's gas tax – ranked 41st in the nation – was all but certain when the panel made its recommendations to Edwards in January.

That still may happen, but up to $25 million in road and bridge damages, a suddenly jolted state and local tax base and the fact thousands of residents are having to start over has changed the picture.

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

Earlier there was speculation that the panel might recommend a 20-cent hike in the gas tax to tackle the state's $12.7 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, and another $5.2 billion for mega projects.

"If it were going to be 20 cents going into this event will 20 cents still be there coming out of this event? Those are questions that the task force is going to have to answer," Wilson said.

"Can we withstand 10 cents (higher) given the fact that families have got to rebuild themselves? I am not naive to that and I think all the members of the task force appreciate that."

"At the end of the day we still have those needs," Wilson said, a reference to the Louisiana's transportation backlog.

The 18-member study group, which includes political, industry and business leaders, has held two meetings.

Regional gatherings are scheduled for next month, and Wilson said communities want to press ahead with hearings on local needs.

"I was encouraged by that," he said.

Sections of key highways were closed during storms and flooding that began Aug. 12, including Interstates 12, 10 and 55.

Up to 1,000 motorists were stranded on flooded I-12 on Aug. 14, sparking widespread complaints from families stuck in cars and trucks for 24 hours and more.

"If the argument and discussion becomes 'Let's use money elsewhere and not invest in transportation' some of the challenges that we saw and our ability to withstand and fight the situation was the result of infrastructure," Wilson said.

"There were segments of I-10 that never flooded before that I would like to elevate," he said. "We don't have the dollars to do that."

Wilson also said that, while less than Hurricane Katrina, population shifts are likely in the Baton Rouge area.

"So when that happens the traffic patterns are going to change," he said. "The demands on our system are going to change."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.