May 16, 2017 10:26 AM

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Photo by Robin May

[Editor's note: The gas tax bill successfully moved out of committee for a vote on the house floor, after hours of debate.]

Governor John Bel Edwards tied the fate of I-49 South to a reportedly doomed gas tax in remarks to a gathering of Acadiana leaders yesterday, hanging the vaunted interstate project in the balance of legislative budget negotiations that are hostile to any new taxes. The governor made a late-announced appearance at a tour event held for Acadiana Day, an annual capitol gathering and tour sponsored by One Acadiana. Hours later, May 15 was proclaimed “I-49 South Day” on the house floor.

In remarks seemingly angled to a back-of-the-room gaggle of Acadiana legislators, Edwards lamented that megaprojects, like the Lafayette Connector project to complete I-49 South through Lafayette’s urban core, could likely stall without significant new revenue represented in a proposed 17-cent gas tax increase, currently under review in the house Ways and Means Committee.

“There is never a time where I’m anywhere close to Lafayette where somebody doesn’t talk to me about I-49 South. That’s how important it is,” Edwards said. “I need your delegation to embrace I-49 South, and it is not going to happen without some additional revenue.”

The tax bill in question is likely doomed to die on the floor of Ways and Means, according to some close to the push to get the increase passed. Among the Ways and Means nays is reported to be State Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge. That dispensation puts him largely at odds with an Acadiana business leadership that’s shown lock-step support for I-49 South and the governor’s infrastructure plans.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia representative and Ways and Means member ex officio, joked at the event about the incongruities of his support for the project with his conservative bonafides, deflecting the hypothetical critique with an appeal to the obvious wellspring of his support: that I-49 South would travel the length of his district. Barras’ jocularities regaled the room full of gathered Acadiana business leaders, pinned almost to the man with pro-I-49 south regalia. But his support may not be enough to carry the tax vehicle to term.

Huval appeared at festivities for the legislature’s Acadiana Day after Edwards quit the building, but made no mention of I-49 South or the region’s infrastructure priorities. Even beyond Ways and Means, the tax bill is said to face a tough slog to approval. Anti-tax sentiment has simmered around the state since the governor took office. Meanwhile the state’s budget has careened from cliff to cliff. The Advocate reported that "Axe the Tax" buttons have swarmed the Ways and Means hearing on the matter.

Edwards and state surrogates like transportation secretary Shawn Wilson have made the rounds ahead of the session to rally support for new revenue. Wilson has stumped for the better part of a year on the state’s crumbling roads and flagging multi-modal infrastructure, beating the ground for $700 million per year in additional funding to tackle the state’s well-documented $23 billion backlog, which includes megaprojects and extensive maintenance on the states roads, bridges, airports, seaports and levees. The bill in question, sponsored by State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, will raise about $500 million annually.

In his remarks to Acadiana Day attendees, Edwards said the state was forced to raid $43 million from the general fund to access the state’s federal match. Projects that are eligible for federal funding like the Connector require a 10 percent match to tap federal dollars.

Moving through the nationally designated Infrastructure Week, it’s unclear what the federal funding climate will be for state departments of transportation. President Trump’s unmaterialized $1 trillion infrastructure remains in the political ether of White House intrigue, with transportation analysts unsure of the funding mechanisms the developer-in-chief will propose. Federal match requirements could rise, some say, as high as 50 percent. Incentives or public/private partnerships could broker private funding into public building. Popular programs like the competitive TIGER grant program, which paid for LCG’s Evangeline Corridor Initiative planning around the Connector, could be scrapped to appease budget hawks.

While the governor’s remarks could well have dampened optimism on the project, a failed gas tax hike will likely not spell the end for momentum on the Connector, and I-49 South in general. The project remains a state and federal priority, one that could figure prominently in the president’s nominal campaign to unleash American energy. Still, longtime supporters will brook no delay on the now 30-year-old Connector. But opponents shouldn’t look at a potentially DOA tax hike, or the governor’s empty threat, as a project-killing development.