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Lawmakers back $600M in borrowing for La. interstates

by Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana lawmakers agreed Monday to finance about $600 million in interstate projects aimed at alleviating traffic snarls and boosting economic development, by borrowing against future federal highway dollars.

The joint House and Senate budget committee agreed without objection to the plan pushed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Other approvals are needed before construction can begin, but the legislative support appeared to be the biggest hurdle to passage.

Three interstate projects would share in the dollars:

—Up to $400 million would pay for the widening of Interstate 10 from the Mississippi River Bridge to Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge, which is the site of daily traffic snarls.

—Up to $125 million would pay for an I-10 interchange in Kenner to serve a new terminal at the New Orleans airport that is under construction.

—Up to $95 million would pay for a new access from Interstate 20 directly into Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, to ease congestion and address security concerns about existing entrances.

Republican Senate President John Alario praised the list of projects selected for the financing in a state with a nearly $14 billion backlog of road and bridge work.

“We will certainly get a return on that investment,” Alario said of the interstate plan.

Louisiana will use a federal construction borrowing tool known as GARVEE bonds to get upfront cash for the work. The debt will be repaid over 12 years with federal highway dollars the state receives. Local governments also are putting up some money for the projects.

Shawn Wilson, state transportation secretary, said 30 other states have used similar financing mechanisms to do roadwork.

Some lawmakers initially were reticent about locking up federal transportation dollars for years. But by Monday, the votes were secured amid promises that Wilson would return to provide updates on the projects as they move forward.

No one spoke in opposition to the plan, and the committee room was packed with local elected officials and other local leaders backing the projects. U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, a Republican former state House member from Bossier City, was on hand to back the interstate work in his district.

Rep. Reid Falconer, a Mandeville Republican, said he “started very skeptical” about borrowing from future federal dollars. But he said Wilson had done a good job of explaining the plans.

“We want you to be successful. We want the projects to move forward,” Falconer said.

Lawmakers agreed to a borrowing plan of up to $650 million, with the three interstate projects and a $12 million bridge and tunnel replacement in Plaquemines Parish. The last step before seeking federal authorization to use the borrowing tool involves review and approval from the State Bond Commission, a hearing scheduled for April 19.

The projects, Wilson has said, will take years to complete because the state will have to maintain the flow of traffic on the interstates.
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