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Crescent City Connection engineer fired

Work was approved improperly

Thursday, April 28, 2011
By Paul Rioux
The Times-Picayune

In yet another disclosure of financial irregularities at the Crescent City Connection, a bridge engineer has been fired for approving work without written contracts and bridge money was improperly used to pay nearly $100,000 in salary and benefits to two administrators for their work on the new Louisiana 1 toll bridge, state transportation officials said Wednesday.

The findings were included in three studies released by the state Department of Transportation and Development as it seeks to “clean up the issues that have long surrounded” the bridge, transportation Secretary Sherri LeBas said.

An unidentified bridge engineer was terminated for “procurement errors” and improperly issuing work orders without written contracts, according to an internal auditor’s report.

“It was mostly for repairs to ferries that was emergency-type work, but there are still procedures for those situations that weren’t followed,” said David Miller, the department’s director of toll facilities.

Transportation officials declined to identify the employee, who was suspended with pay in January and fired three weeks ago. The officials said the state attorney general’s office was notified of the breach in contracting procedures.

“I don’t suspect there was any wrongdoing,” Miller said. “But anytime you run across something like this where the rules were not followed, you have an obligation to have it checked out.”

The release also said the Crescent City Connection was reimbursed $98,645 this week for wages and benefits paid to two former bridge officials for time devoted to the Louisiana 1 toll bridge in Leeville from 2005 to 2008.

The accounting error did not increase compensation for the two officials, executive director Alan LeVasseur and assistant executive director Randy Paisant, both of whom retired in 2008.

A legislative audit said state law prohibits Crescent City Connection toll revenue from being used for the Leeville bridge, which opened in 2009.

The Louisiana 1 bridge has now had to refund $1.3 million to the Crescent City Connection, including nearly $840,000 for a $3.8 million expansion to the river bridge’s Algiers headquarters, where some of the additional space is used to process Louisiana 1 tolls.

Miller said the reports scrutinizing the bridge’s finances and toll-collection system are part of the transportation department’s efforts to scale back bridge operations in preparation for the expiration of tolls at the end of 2012, barring legislative action to renew them.

“This is just another step in proactively creating a viable transparent facility until its closure,” he said.

The disclosures come a day after the Bureau of Governmental Research released a study saying bridge tolls should be allowed to expire because only 19 percent of toll revenue goes to policing and maintaining the bridge. The report said much of the rest is spent on “far-flung” services, including three Mississippi River ferries that consume 32 percent of toll revenue.

The toll, which is collected from east bank-bound motorists, is $1 per two-axle vehicle for people paying cash and 40 cents for those with electronic toll tags. The tolls generate about $21 million of the bridge’s $27 million budget, meaning wholesale cutbacks will be required if the tolls lapse.

Other findings in the three reports released Wednesday:

About 8 percent of vehicles with toll tags aren’t charged because the accounts don’t have enough money to cover the 40-cent toll. A consultant said there is an “easy fix” to prevent these vehicles from repeatedly getting a free ride.

More than $5 million in fines for toll violations remains uncollected, with no procedure in place to involve a collection agency.

Nearly 20 percent of toll violators never receive a violation notice.

A software program has trouble recognizing standard Louisiana license plates, forcing bridge employees to manually review video of toll scofflaws to send out violation notices. The bridge is suing the software provider and is in talks with the firm to give it a chance to fix the problem.

Wednesday’s reports followed a series of at least a half-dozen audits and studies during the past few years that have raised questions about the bridge’s finances and management.

A 2010 audit found that Crescent City Connection toll revenue was improperly used to cover expenses for the Louisiana 1 toll bridge, including $60,000 in legal fees. State transportation officials have said the money has been repaid.

Other studies faulted the Crescent City Connection for poor financial record keeping and paying a $4 million annual premium for an insurance policy that state officials determined was unnecessary.
Transportation officials emphasized that none of the audits or reports uncovered evidence of theft or malfeasance.

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