Flush with MovEBR victory, Jim Bernhard’s next quest is regional bridge tax
Encouraged by the weekend passage of the MovEBR roads tax, businessman Jim Bernhard is now calling for surrounding parishes and state legislators to follow Baton Rouge’s lead and allow voters to weigh in on funding regional traffic solutions—namely, a new Capital Region bridge.
Bernhard, speaking to the Baton Rouge Press Club this afternoon, said a new bridge over the Mississippi River is attainable and that his private equity firm, Bernhard Capital Partners, is willing to provide the upfront equity or debt needed to build the bridge and collect tolls to pay off the new infrastructure.
But public funding will also be necessary to cover costs of feeder roads to the bridge, creating a loop connecting it to the interstate. And Bernhard is urging elected officials to allow voters in the new five-parish Capital Region authority to decide if they want to raise taxes to fund those roads.
“We’re looking to the five parishes to contribute,” Bernhard said. “Baton Rouge has led the way. These parishes will say, “Hey, we can do this as well. We don’t want to be left behind.’”
Meanwhile, the bridge itself could be funded with the help of tolls. Based on preliminary numbers, Bernhard said, there would be “an acceptable return on investment” to pay off the debt over a period of 30 to 40 years.
“We’ll do it,” Bernhard says of BCP. “A lot of other companies would do it, but we happen to be here. By us stepping up, people should have confidence in voting for a tax… The parishes would take care of roads around the bridge through taxes.”
Bernhard even gave the proposed new bridge a name: the Capital Bridge. And the proposed loop connecting to the bridge would be called the Capital Expressway.
The difficulty is not in building a new bridge, Bernhard says. Instead, the difficulty has been allowing people to vote on funding it. He recalled the state gas tax proposal in 2017, which legislators refused to put on the ballot for voters to decide.
“I believe strongly in letting people decide,” he said. “I’ve never been more disappointed than when the gas tax didn’t even get a vote.”
There are, however, other obstacles standing in the way of building a new bridge, which Bernhard did not address. Those include acquiring property, rights of way and relocating utilities—not only to build the bridge but also to build the miles of access roads tying it to the interstate on both sides of the river.