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Road money outcome uncertain

Sunday, June 16, 2019
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Louisiana’s highway districts would have gained millions of dollars over time had the House-passed version of a bill redirecting settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill been approved by the Legislature.

But instead, the Senate scuttled the plan, added more high-dollar projects to the bill and locked northeast Louisiana, including Lincoln Parish, out of direct funding in the $700 million spending plan, the state’s biggest road spending plan in 30 years.

The bill passed.

“I’m extremely disappointed that northeast Louisiana was not included in the biggest infrastructure bill whatsoever,” an irked Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker said the day after HB 578 was sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards for enactment into law.

“I think everybody knows this is a bad deal,” Walker said.

Consolation money?

As of midday Friday, Edwards had not signed the bill.

And, while the governor’s office won’t confirm it, several lawmakers and others say Edwards’ fast tracking eight north Louisiana projects within days of the Legislature’s approving HB 578 was an effort to ease discontent over what happened with the $700 million transportation package.

“I don’t happen to think it’s coincidental,” Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, said.

Edwards’ office issued a press release shortly after 5 p.m. June 10 outlining additional funding for an I-20 connector in Monroe, as well as seven other projects, including the Stowe Creek Relief Bridge on La. 151 in Union Parish.

Discontent over the outcome of HB 578 began to surface locally June 5, the day after the bill won final legislative approval. That was a Thursday. By Friday, lawmakers and several area officials had already contacted Edwards and Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson.

“I think Gov. Edwards was feeling the heat,” said Morris, who voted against the Senate’s changes. “I think our local legislators were feeling the heat.”

“Whether (Edwards) did it as a response to that or whether he did it because of politics, in this business you take whatever help you can get anyway you can get it,” Sen. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said.

North Louisiana’s only chance

It was Fannin, whose district includes part of Lincoln Parish, along with Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, who convinced the Senate to include $40 million in the bill for rural roads and bridges.

That’s the only opportunity area parishes have for funding out of the bill, but the pool is statewide. That means every eligible project in any parish can compete for a share of the funds.

Both Fannin and Thompson bristle at claims that north Louisiana got left out of the transportation package.

“We’re in the $40 million pool. The governor even backed that up with additional money,” Thompson said. “It was ludicrous for anyone to say we got snubbed or left out.”

Fannin sits on the Senate Finance Committee. It was his amendment that added the $40 million.

“We will get our share of the $40 million,” he said.

Having the $40 million available frees other funds that could now be made available to rural projects, he said.

Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer, said lawmakers have been given a guarantee north Louisiana is in the money.

“We’ve gotten the assurance from the governor our area will be protected,” said Jefferson, who represents part of Lincoln Parish.

But Morris said the area could have fared better. He also contends there’s no guarantee north Louisiana will see any of the $40 million.

The till could become a slush fund of sorts for the next governor, Morris said, whether that’s Edwards, who’s seeking a second term, or someone else. How so? None of the money is tagged for any specific project.

On the last day of the session Morris pushed through a resolution requesting the Department of Transportation and Development direct $40 million to northeast Louisiana.

“It’s not binding — I’m hopeful its persuasive,” he said.

Follow the money

The transportation bill began as an effort to dedicate more state money to roads and bridges.

The state is getting $53.3 million annually for damage done by the 2010 oil spill over the 13 years of the settlement.

For the 2019 and 2020 budget years, the money will go to the Budget Stabilization Fund, the Trust Fund for the Elderly and the Health Trust Fund — the places the Legislature voted to put it in 2014. This year’s action strips those previous dedications starting in 2021.

Originally, HB 578 sought to dedicate $50 million of that annually to two projects: an improvement project on state Hwy. 1 and planning and construction of a new bridge over the Intracoastal Canal. Each project would have gotten $25 million per year, one for five budget years and the other, for six.

A House-passed amendment by Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, put the remainder of the money — $3.3 million annually — into a fund that would have been divided equally among the state’s nine DOTD districts.

The money was tagged for preservation, bridges, safety projects and for capacity projects.

Initially, the amount would have been about $370,000 per district.

But as the two $25 million projects began rolling off the books, the pot for the DOTD districts would have grown, until eventually, all $53.3 million was going to the districts, Stefanski said.

Had that happened, District 5, the district that includes Lincoln, Union and Jackson parishes, stood to get almost $7 million annually in the end.

“Y’all would have come out better,” Stefanski said.

Senate wields the ax

But when the bill hit the Senate, Stefanski’s amendment came off, and eight more megaprojects were added.

That’s when Fannin realized there wasn’t any emphasis on rural roads and the $40 million statewide pool was added.

By the end, the bill had become a $700 million spending plan with the only north Louisiana project being a $100 million allocation for an I-49 north inner-city connector in Caddo Parish.

Defenders of the bill said the big-buck projects were shovel-ready. But the optics of the bill began to look lopsided.

Ruston had a shovelready project — the proposed work on Monroe Street. So did Ouachita Parish.

One official suggested it was the perception of the final bill that led to Edwards’ June 10 announcement of additional DOTD funding for the long-sought Kansas Lane-Garrett Road Connector I-20 Interchange in Monroe and seven state bridge projects: one each in Union, East Carroll, Madison and LaSalle parishes and three in Richland Parish.

“These bridge projects were selected by DOTD from a list of closed bridges and bridges that are loadposted on routes that we believe are important for truck movements,” DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett said.

Apparently, local officials were notcontacted beforehand.

“I don’t know how it came up,” Union Parish Police Jury President Jerry Taylor said.

He said while he’s grateful the Stowe Creek Relief Bridge on state Hwy. 151 will be rehabbed, it’s parish bridges that need help.

“What we need help with is these old structures built in the late ’70s that we’ve already patched and patched,” Taylor said.

What now?

Meantime, if Edwards signs HB 578, bonds would be sold to pay for the megaprojects. Final decisions about how the $40 million portion of the bill might be used can’t be made until the state determines what portion of the funds can be bonded, Mallett said.

And, the entire bill may change.

“Don’t be surprised if somebody doesn’t try to come back next year and redirect (the settlement money) again,” Fannin said. “At this point, it’s just a wish list.”