(The Center Square) – A Louisiana lawmaker wants to outlaw tolls on the state’s interstate system by removing exceptions to an existing ban, but a House committee has deferred his bill.
State Rep. Les Farnum, R-Sulphur, told the House Committee on Transportation, Highways and Public Works that Louisiana law prohibits tolls on existing roads, bridges, overpasses or highways “unless you improve or expand the system.”
Farnum sponsored House Bill 814 to remove the exception because he said tolls constitute a double tax and plans in the works to toll I-10 to fund bridge work would send the wrong message to folks coming into the state.
“I believe the money is there, it’s just the path of least resistance, I believe, that you put a toll on I-10,” Farnum said during Tuesday’s committee meeting. “You can go from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida, and not pay a toll.
“I don’t want to be the first example in the United States to say, ‘Ok, as soon as you get into Louisiana, we’re going to tax you again,’” he said. “Y’all come visit our pretty state, but we’re going to tax you as soon as you get here. That’s just not a good message, in my mind.”
Farnum explained that money included in the infrastructure law approved by Congress could fund the bridge work, but it requires lawmakers, the governor and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to agree it’s a priority.
Farnum pointed out the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles costs about the same as a $700 million planned expansion of the Baton Rouge bridge, though there is no plan to toll the latter.
“The playing field just needs to be the same all across the state,” he said.
Some lawmakers on the committee expressed concerns the bill would limit options for other big planned projects and questioned how it would affect public-private partnerships that rely on a return on investment.
Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson told the committee the I-10 bridge in Lake Charles is in the procurement process for a public-private partnership and HB 814 “would undermine that procurement process.”
Wilson stressed the state and private partners have invested millions in the procurement process, and argued that having all available options to pay for big transportation projects is critical to getting the work done.
“All of the above approach is what we have to do in infrastructure today,” Wilson said. “It’s not a luxury. It’s not where anyone wants to be. But if we want to deliver these projects, it’s going to take a host of things, from funding alternatives to financing tools. And the funding is the actual revenue that we get.
“The bigger issue is the message (HB 814) sends regarding our commitment or seriousness to being able to pursue the private partnership market,” he said.
Wilson contended there is no way to pay for $1 billion-plus projects without private partnerships.
Rep. Mack Cormier, D-Belle Chasse, countered Wilson’s claim by pointing out some private businesses charge states use fees spread over decades, instead of imposing tolls.
“In a (public-private partnership) project, there’s ways to get around it,” he said. “It’s just something you really have to dig in to try to find, otherwise you can get stuck with a toll.”
Local officials from Belle Chasse explained how the law would have prevented a toll on a bridge there that’s expected to generate $700 million for the developer, money generated from locals who cross the structure daily for school and other necessities.
A representative from the Louisiana Motor Transport Association testified about other issues with tolls, as well as the negative effect the tolls have on those who deliver goods. The Southwest Louisiana Alliance, an economic development group, as well as lobbyists and locals from Ascension Parish opposed the bill.
The committee ultimately voted 6-9 to defer HB 814.