In The News › Crescent City Connection toll extension opposed by BGR

Crescent City Connection toll extension opposed by BGR

By Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune

The Bureau of Governmental Research recommended Wednesday that voters reject a proposal to renew tolls on the Crescent City Connection for another 20 years. The independent research group said the need for continuing tolls on the Mississippi River bridge “has not been established.” Unless voters in Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes approve the extension Nov. 6, the tolls will expire at the end of the year.

The tolls, which have been in place since 1989, are set at $1 for drivers paying cash and 40 cents for vehicles with electronic toll tags.

They generated $20.7 million in fiscal 2011, which accounted for 80 percent of the total budget of the Crescent City Connection Division of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The CCC Division operates the bridge and the Algiers, Gretna and Chalmette ferries. It is also responsible for the maintenance, landscaping, lighting and policing of about 13 miles of roadways and approaches to the bridge, including the West Bank Expressway, Mardi Gras Boulevard, Shirley Drive, a part of Gen. de Gaulle Drive, and U.S. 90Z to the Broad Street overpass on the east bank.

The division receives money from tolls on the bridge and a special fund known as State Highway Fund No. 2. In the past, it has spent only a small share of toll revenue on the bridge itself. The BGR calculated that for every dollar of bridge tolls paid in fiscal 2010, only 19 cents went to maintaining and policing the bridge. The largest slice, 32 cents, went to operating and maintaining the ferries. Another 16 cents went to collecting and administering the tolls, 5 cents to grass cutting and trash pickup on surrounding roadways, 9 cents to debt service, 6 cents to various capital projects and 13 cents to a capital reserve fund.

If voters renew the tolls, new state laws would ensure they would be “closer to true user fees” in the future, the BGR said in a report. Toll revenue would no longer be spent on ferries. The money could be used only on the bridge and along U.S. 90Z, which includes a portion of the Pontchartrain Expressway and all of the West Bank Expressway.

The revenue would be dedicated to the following purposes: “operations, maintenance, landscaping, grass cutting, trash pickup, functional and ornamental lighting, policing, inspections, motorist assistance patrols and capital projects on the bridge, approaches and roadways.”

Even though the tolls would provide a dedicated source of money for infrastructure investments, the BGR said it does not believe supporters have presented good reasons to renew them.

For one thing, it said, the toll revenue would be used for many expenses that the state otherwise would be expected to meet from other sources. The State Police have said they will assume responsibility for patrolling the bridge regardless of whether the tolls continue, the BGR noted. Likewise, the report said, the Transportation Department has indicated that it will inspect, maintain and repair the bridge regardless of whether there are tolls.

The extent to which the state would pay for proposed capital projects without tolls is unclear, the report acknowledged. If voters approve the tolls, a minimum of $10 million would be deposited each year into a fund for capital projects such as repainting the bridge; improving on-ramps and exits to and from U.S. 90Z at Annunciation Street, Barataria Boulevard, Tchoupitoulas Street and the MacArthur Drive interchange; and rehabilitating the Harvey Tunnel. If money were available after the financing of these projects, it could be used for additional capital projects on the bridge or the rest of U.S. 90Z.

However, “because of the vagueness of the proposition and accompanying legislation, the geographical limits on the expenditure of toll funds are open to interpretation,” the BGR said, making it hard for voters to make an informed decision.

The Transportation Department spends about $800,000 a year to maintain lights on the bridge, “a fraction of what would be collected through tolls,” the BGR report said, and there will be enough money in a transition fund to cover these costs for a number of years. “This will provide plenty of time for local jurisdictions to work out a strategy for these services,” it said.

Finally, the BGR said, “drivers need not fear that the bridge will become unsafe. Under federal law, the state must regularly inspect the bridge to ensure proper maintenance and immediately address any safety-related deficiencies. Even if that were not the case, it is unlikely that the state would fail to prioritize one of its most vital arteries.”

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