(The Center Square) — Citizens will weigh in next week on plans to build a $2.1 billion toll bridge over the Calcasieu River in Lake Charles before lawmakers review for a final go-ahead in September.
Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Eric Kalivoda updated lawmakers on a joint transportation committee about progress with the megaproject on Tuesday as the agency moves toward construction starting next year.
DOTD selected Calcasieu Bridge Partners, a group of several prominent design and construction firms, to lead the public-private partnership, and has secured $800 million in public funding to replace the 71-year-old bridge.
The public funding includes $150 million from a federal mega grant, $150 million in federal relief funding, $240 million in vehicle sales taxes over six years, $85 million in general obligation bonds, $75 million from federal highway funding, and $100 million from the state general fund, Kalivoda said.
Those funds are in addition to $150 million in DOTD retained costs from the Highway Priority Program, and $265 million in other potential costs tied to possible delays in permitting, increasing interest rates, and any changes to the plans.
Toll rates will range from 25 cents for local vehicles to $18.73 for large trucks without a toll tag, with discounts for vehicles with more than three passengers during peak traffic. Construction is slated to begin in 2024 and last seven years, with a 50-year operations and toll period once complete.
The next steps involve a public hearing on Aug. 31 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Lake Charles Civic Center to collect feedback, which will be incorporated into a report to the joint transportation committee for final approval in September.
Failure to approve the project would result in a $2.75 million stipend paid to Calcasieu Bridge Partners for developing its plan, Kalivoda said.
DOTD is exploring ways to minimize the impact of tolls on large trucks, including a potential tax credit for tolls beyond $3,000 a year that would require legislative approval. The department has also applied for a $200 million federal grant to buy down toll rates for non-local autos to lessen the potential impact on regional tourism.
Other efforts to maintain access to lakefront recreational areas would require a legislative appropriation, as would extra expenses to add decorative lighting and cable stays and a bike and pedestrian lane that were not required in DOTD's request for proposals.
DOTD is compiling an estimate for the costs and risks associated with those changes to present to lawmakers, who would also need to change state law for the bike path to proceed.
Several lawmakers expressed concerns with tolling motorists for 50 years to help pay for the bridge and an interest in avoiding tolls and tax credits, including possibly rehabilitating the current bridge.
“It's just sad to see that our taxpayers are going to have to take a double-whammy, from paying a toll and offset by coming out of the general funds and stuff like that to pay the tolls” through potential tax credits, said Rep. Rodney Schamerhorn, R-Hornbeck.
“I would say … if we do not proceed forward, the bridge is going to be deferred indefinitely,” Kalivoda said. “There is no way to close that gap” in funding.