- Associated Press - Thursday, August 4, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - With Louisiana’s budget gaps partially stabilized, Gov. John Bel Edwards is looking to make roads, bridges and other transportation needs a key initiative for next year’s legislative session.

In June, the Democratic governor created an 18-member study group to develop ideas for tackling Louisiana’s more than $12 billion road and bridge improvement backlog. The task force has started regular meetings, with its recommendations due by Jan. 1.

The state has struggled for years with ways to chip away at the long list of projects, with only modest success. In the budget year that began July 1, Edwards and lawmakers stopped paying for Louisiana State Police operations out of the state’s transportation trust fund, a move that will steer millions more to roadwork this year.

But the governor is seeking more ways to drum up money for infrastructure.

“It’s obvious that existing revenue sources aren’t going to get for us more than we’ve been getting, and if we wait for the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy to deliver these infrastructure projects, that’s never going to happen,” Edwards said at a transportation event Thursday.

He wants the study group to consider gasoline tax hikes, toll roads and public/private partnerships as it devises recommendations to raise more money for road and bridge work. He said he wants the members to look at what other states do to pay for projects.

“It doesn’t make any sense to just have another study to determine we have a $12 billion backlog and then we put that study on the shelf. We know that there’s a backlog, so we’re going to have to come up with some strategies to make sure that we can alleviate it. That cannot be done without resources,” Edwards said.

The governor is also planning to steer more dollars from the state construction budget to transportation projects, plans that still need final approval later this year from the Bond Commission.

Edwards held events in Baton Rouge and Lafayette on Wednesday and Thursday to tout new interstate improvements that are planned to ease traffic problems, after the state received a $60 million federal grant.

At Thursday’s press conference, the governor said more than $20 million will be spent to build a new off-ramp in Baton Rouge, aimed at lessening congestion at an interstate chokepoint near downtown. Construction will begin in late 2017 or early 2018.

Earlier this week, a new commissioner of the Office of Multimodal Commerce was introduced by the Edwards administration, with a goal of coordinating state programs for ports, railroads, aviation and commercial trucking. The office was created by lawmakers within the state transportation department.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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