By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Members of Congress are still bickering over the wisdom of passing a $1 trillion infrastructure package, but Louisiana lawmakers and state officials have moved to developing plans for spending the influx of cash for roads, bridges, coastal protection, broadband internet and more.
As President Joe Biden readies to sign the bipartisan legislation Monday, state agencies and lawmakers are starting to sift through the measure’s thousands of pages, determine what the dollars can fund and strategize for how to apply for the discretionary cash that will be available.
Some of the financing in the bill — which Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy helped to negotiate — will require the state to put up matching dollars. Some of the money will flow through traditional highway and coastal project financing streams while other dollars will require Louisiana to compete against other states. Some of the pots of money will be governed by federal rules and regulations that have yet to be developed.
“It’s horribly complicated,” said Shawn Wilson, Louisiana’s secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development.
At a minimum, Louisiana is expected to get $7.2 billion for roads, bridges, public transit, airports, broadband improvements, water system upgrades and more, according to information from the White House.
But the state also is eligible for billions in additional programs. Cassidy said, for example, that $2.5 billion included in the legislation for coastal storm risk management is tailored so narrowly that Louisiana is one of the only states that will meet the eligibility requirements.
It likely will be months or longer before Louisiana officials know how much money the state will receive. And the list of wants and needs for infrastructure financing is long.
Louisiana has a $15 billion backlog of road and bridge repairs; a $15 billion wish list of new bridges, interstate widenings and other highway projects aimed at addressing traffic problems; a multibillion-dollar backlog of water system needs; and other coastal projects and infrastructure proposals that have been on the drawing board for years.
Wilson said he’s already received many calls from lawmakers proposing dollars be steered to their favored road and bridge projects. House Appropriations Chairman Jerome “Zee” Zeringue said he’s also hearing from colleagues with ideas for how to spend the federal infrastructure cash.
“We are looking at the bill, getting into it and waiting for guidance,” said Zeringue, a Houma Republican whose committee works on the state’s budget.
The bipartisan infrastructure package is separate from a second measure sought by Democrats that would expand social safety net programs and that has drawn widespread opposition from Republicans, including Cassidy. That larger, $1.75 trillion social spending bill still is being debated.
For the infrastructure bill, Wilson is trying manage expectations about how far the dollars can stretch. He noted that of the $6 billion Louisiana is guaranteed to receive for highway and bridge work over the next five years, the state was expecting to receive $4.8 billion of that already through the traditional federal highway financing formula. Meanwhile, he notes that costs of construction are growing.
Still, with the dollars available for water system improvements, flood mitigation projects, broadband, electrical grid upgrades, ports, orphan well remediation and other items, the infrastructure bill likely will send billions more to Louisiana.
“These bipartisan investments will be nothing short of transformational,” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement after the measure received final passage from the U.S. House on Nov. 5.
Cassidy said his willingness to negotiate with Democrats and the Biden administration on the infrastructure package means many of the proposals were crafted in a way to ensure Louisiana will be eligible for the discretionary, competitive grant and project dollars.
“It helps to be in the room,” he said.
Cassidy has been promoting the legislation for months, despite repeated pushback from the other Republican members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation who voted against the measure and described it as “radical” and “socialist garbage.” Besides Cassidy, Democratic U.S. Rep. Troy Carter was the only other Louisiana member of Congress to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
Whatever the disputes in Washington, GOP state lawmakers back home are readying to spend the cash.
“The reality is, politics aside, the bill has passed, so you can either utilize it or there are going to be other (states) that utilize the money,” Zeringue said.