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As legislative session looms, fight over Mississippi River Bridge funding brews

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BATON ROUGE - As lawmakers return to the State Capitol for the legislative session, which opens Monday, a battle over proposed funding for a new Mississippi River Bridge has already begun.

In the executive budget proposal unveiled in January, Gov. John Bel Edwards proposes setting aside $500 million in current-year excess funds to go toward a new bridge in Baton Rouge, a project he calls the single-most-important infrastructure priority statewide.

Edwards and transportation leaders say the money would go into a fund that would signal to the federal authorities how serious the state is about constructing a new bridge, potentially leading to grants to cover additional costs. The estimated price tag, in current-day dollars, is $2 billion, according to DOTD.

Some lawmakers, though, say they need to see more progress before setting that chunk of money aside.

"I think the [House of Representatives] and most members I've talked to have a lot of concerns about just putting $500 million into an account with no real plan attached to it," said Rep. Tanner Magee, a Republican representing Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. "We want to make sure that there's a plan to get the rest of the money, first of all. Second of all, there's still no agreement on where this bridge is going to be."

Currently, 17 locations are up for discussion, with the Capital Area Road and Bridge District set to whittle that down to three later this year.

In an interview with WBRZ Friday, Magee, who serves as speaker pro tempore, says he ultimately supports building a new bridge. He chalks this up to geographical concerns rather than a political fight.

"Everybody in the state has construction projects," Magee said. "We have a $14 billion backlog. So, there's enough to go around for everybody. Everybody thinks that their project is the most important."

Magee's first public comments on a new bridge Friday came during a webinar with the Public Affairs Research Council. Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, and Rep. Sam Jenkins, a Democrat from northwest Louisiana, also appeared at the virtual event and shared Magee's concerns.

WBRZ reached out to several capital area lawmakers to gauge where they stand on the bridge funding.

Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Baton Rouge Democrat, says she fully supports the $500 million proposal, calling it "the responsible thing to do." She added, "this is the first time we've ever had that large amount of money to set aside. We may never have this opportunity again."

Rep. Barbara Freiberg, a Baton Rouge Republican, also supports Edwards' plan, saying she is "committed to fighting" for the funds. She believes putting the money aside for the project will send the right message to the federal government, drivers and those who may participate in a public-private partnership expected to help fund the construction of a new bridge.

Magee says he hopes Edwards and administration leaders will provide additional information when the funding is discussed and debated during the session, which must adjourn by June 6.

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