Gov. John Bel Edwards wants to push for an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, he told business leaders Monday, while reiterating his commitment to traffic infrastructure improvements.

“It is my hope, it is my expectation that we will ask for gas tax for a specified set of projects. When that does happen, I would hope to have your support,” Edwards said during a 21-minute speech at the Statewide Economic Development Summit, presented by Entergy Louisiana, at L’Auberge Casino in Baton Rouge.

The governor inherited a budget that needed $850 million to cover the promised spending for this fiscal year and was about $2 billion short for the fiscal year that begins July 1. He said his first duty is to cover what he calls the largest deficit in the state’s history.

“We have to stabilize government for the state of Louisiana to support the institutions that give poor people an opportunity for a better life,” Edwards said.

“We’re cutting just about every state agency in state government to a point that I am not comfortable they will not be able to deliver the services that y’all expect,” Edwards said. “There are only so many ways we can raise the type of revenue that we’re talking about. Well, we’ve already done the sales tax, we’re not going back there.”

The governor pointed out that the Transportation Trust Fund, which receives its money predominantly from taxes on gasoline, is designated for infrastructure projects.

The money cannot legally be used to pay for housing inmates, delivering health care or supporting universities. A tax of 20 cents per gallon of gasoline has not been updated since 1990. A number of good government groups, such as Blueprint Louisiana, have recommended raising the current state portion of the tax.

After pushing through more than $1 billion in taxes during the 25-day special session, which Edwards called in February to balance the budget, legislators have said they have a limited appetite for further tax increases.

“It wasn’t the wisest thing to do right away,” Edwards said. Legislation to raise the tax on gasoline passed from a legislative committee but never was presented for a vote by the full House during the special session.

Edwards said that during his roughly 100 days in office — he was inaugurated on Jan. 11 — he has not routed money out of the Transportation Trust Fund for other noninfrastructure, transportation-related programs, such as helping the State Police’s budget. That left available for infrastructure projects $60 million more than former Gov. Bobby Jindal spent in his last year in office, he said.

He plans to double the state’s investments in the ports and to spend about $80 million out of the state’s construction funds on transportation, Edwards said.

In the meantime, the state is applying for $100 million in federal dollars to widen Interstate 10 from Interstate 49 to the Atchafalaya Basin. If even some of that money comes through, Edwards said he would divert state dollars to work on the Washington Street exit on I-10 in Baton Rouge, which Edwards and Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden pointed out to President Barack Obama while driving in from the airport in January.

The Washington Street exit coming off the I-10 bridge over the Mississippi River is the only place on the 2,460-mile highway interstate, which stretches from Santa Monica, California, to Jacksonville, Florida, that goes to a single lane. Traffic routinely chokes there and causes daily headaches for travelers through Baton Rouge.

If the federal government grants Louisiana the entire $100 million sought, the state would build a new off-ramp in Kenner to service the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, and an off-ramp from Interstate 20 into Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, he said.

“And we’re going to do the first step in promoting light rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans,” Edwards said to applause.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB.

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