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End Urged for New Orleans Bridge Tolls

Thursday, April 28, 2011
By Jim Watts
The Bond Buyer

DALLAS – Tolls on twin state bridges across the Mississippi River in New Orleans should be allowed to expire next year with the final payment on the bonds that financed the spans, an advocacy group argues.

A report issued Tuesday by the Bureau of Governmental Research recommended the tolls on the Crescent City Connection not be extended past the end of 2012, because almost a third of the toll revenue subsidizes three ferry services across the river.

The New Orleans-based nonprofit group said for every $1 in tolls, 32 cents is used to operate and maintain the ferry service of the Crescent City Connection District, a unit of the Louisiana highway department that operates the bridges and ferries.

Only 19 cents goes to maintenance and public safety on the four-lane spans, the BGR report said, along with 9 cents for debt service and 16 cents for toll collection and administration.

A 2010 audit by the state found that it costs $8.4 million a year to operate the ferries, which generate $250,000 a year in toll revenue.

Toll revenue accounts for about three-quarters of the district’s total $26.5 million annual budget.

The $1 toll, which drops to 40 cents with an electronic toll tag, is collected only on vehicles heading into downtown New Orleans.

Debt service in fiscal 2010 on the Louisiana Mississippi River Bridge Authority bonds that financed the bridges was $2.6 million. Debt service obligations in 2011 and 2012 total $4.7 million.

With the final debt-service payment due in November 2012, the report said there is no reason to extend the tolls once the final bonds mature. Without legislative action, the tolls are set to expire at the end of 2012.

“Drivers on the CCC should not be required to subsidize ferry riders and to pay for construction projects far afield,” the BGR report said. “Nor should they be the only bridge-users in the state who must pay to get from one side of the Mississippi River to the other. It is time for the state to pick up the tab as it does elsewhere.”

The Crescent City Connection is the only toll bridge of the eight state bridges across the Mississippi River in Louisiana, and the only one with its own police force.

The first of the two cantilevered four-lane spans was built with $65 million of revenue bonds issued in 1954 by the Mississippi River Bridge Authority, which was created in 1952.

The second bridge was completed in 1989.

The bridge district was incorporated into the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development in 1975.

In 1992, the district issued $39.5 million of revenue bonds to build new approaches to the bridges. It issued $19.2 million of bonds in 2002 to refinance the 1992 bonds.

State Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Harvey, last week asked Gov. Bobby Jindal to allow the tolls to expire. Connick, a frequent critic of the bridges’ management, said the connection could be operated with its $23 million reserve fund and $5.5 million of state funds.

Connick said the ferry system should be reduced and the district’s 25-member police force should be absorbed into the state police. He said he would oppose any attempt in the current session to extend the bridge tolls past 2012.

Jindal declined to take a position on the fate of the bridge toll.

“We’re not going to be driving this process,” the Republican governor said. “Instead, we’ll be listening to people in the local community. In the meantime, we’ll be working to make bridge operations as lean as possible and as efficient as possible in case the tolls aren’t renewed.”

Transportation Secretary Sherri LeBas said the loss of toll revenue would require laying off 200 employees and reducing ferry operations and police patrols.

Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, has called for the creation of an eight-member task force to study the various options and suggest a course of action to the 2012 Legislature.

He said a review by a panel of engineering experts and bridge users would remove politics from the process.

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