Lawmakers vote down public-private partnership for $2.1B Calcasieu bridge

Pete Buttigieg
United States Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks during a press conference on the seawall at the Civic Center in Lake Charles, La., Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Buttigieg’s visit on Thursday is to celebrate a $150 million grant to help replace the outdated Interstate 10 Calcasieu River Bridge. The project is among the first major grant recipients under President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure deal. (Rick Hickman/American Press via AP) Rick Hickman/AP

Lawmakers vote down public-private partnership for $2.1B Calcasieu bridge

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(The Center Square) — A $2.1 billion public-private partnership to build a toll bridge over the Calcasieu River near Lake Charles was derailed in a legislative committee on Tuesday.

The Legislature’s Joint Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee voted 8-6 mostly along party lines against approving a public partnership with Calcasieu Bridge Partners, a group of several prominent design construction firms, with Republicans opposed.

State law requires approval from the Legislature.

The vote follows concerns from local representatives, residents and Gov.-elect Jeff Landry about replacing the 71-year-old bridge with a new one that would toll motorists for 50 years to help pay for it.

The vote to reject the partnership will cost taxpayers $2.75 million for a contractual stipend to Calcasieu Bridge Partners and leaves the state with two options to replace the aging structure: a design-bid-build pay-as-you-go process that would stretch beyond 2060, or a state-owned toll option that would complete a new bridge around 2039, Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Eric Kalivoda told the committee.

DOTD officials have said they could extend the bridge’s life by two to three decades with a roughly $200 million to $300 million rehabilitation.

Multiple committee members noted that former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden vowed to help build the bridge and questioned whether DOTD aggressively pursued federal funding.

The project secured about $800 million in public funds, with $150 million from a federal mega grant, $150 from American Rescue Plan funds, $240 million from the state’s vehicle sales tax, $85 million in state general obligation bonds, $75 million from the federal Highway Priority Program, and $100 million from the state’s General Fund, officials said.

Kalivoda said the state is also pursuing an additional federal grant to lower the toll rates.

“I don’t believe there’s this endless pot of federal money that’s just going to come gushing forth to fill the gap in funding to build this bridge without tolls,” Kalivoda said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Kalivoda said not using the federal grants could result in less funding in the future. Dale Bonner, representing Calcasieu Bridge Partners, told the committee the public-private partnership must be in place by the coming months to proceed with the project and could not be delayed until Landry takes office.

Bonner also said Calcasieu Bridge Partners could not negotiate to reduce potential tolls until the agreement was finalized.

Kalivoda laid out what he perceived as the consequences of failing to approve the public-private partnership.

“I believe the incoming administration will be set up for failure if that is the case. There will be a public expectation that the new administration and the new Legislature will deliver a toll-free bridge,” he said. “I believe there will be an attempt to convince the next governor and the next secretary to use the regular highway and bridge funds … to fund this project, and that will cost every legislator in this state projects in their districts.”

Other testimony on Tuesday came from residents who complained about the deteriorating condition of the bridge, business interests in support, unions that warned of jobs lost if the project is not approved, and trucking companies that complained about the proposed tolls.

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