In The News › Jefferson Parish Council to launch ‘fact-finding mission’ on Crescent City Connection tolls

Jefferson Parish Council to launch ‘fact-finding mission’ on Crescent City Connection tolls

By Paul Rioux
The Times-Picayune
June 13, 2012

With voters in Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes set to decide in November whether to renew Crescent City Connection tolls, Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts said he is launching a “fact-finding mission” to help them make informed decisions. Roberts is sponsoring a series of resolutions at today’s Parish Council meeting aimed at reconciling conflicting reports about expected reductions in services if the tolls, which generate $21 million a year, expire Dec. 31 and the state takes over bridge maintenance using more limited gas tax revenue.

“We need to set aside the political posturing and get to the facts,” Roberts said. “What people decide in the voting booth is their own business. But we’re obligated to provide them with the facts so they can make an educated decision.”

Roberts wants the state Department of Transportation and Development to release a post-toll plan outlining the frequency of various bridge services, including repairs, street sweeping, trash pickup and mowing under the elevated West Bank Expressway.

Last month, a DOTD official told the council the state would provide 21 workers and $1.5 million to maintain the bridge and 14 miles of attached expressway. That’s about half the amount now spent on bridge upkeep, mowing and landscaping using toll revenue, according a report from a Legislature-created task force that recommended renewing the tolls.

At the time, DOTD officials said they could not provide a detailed list of post-toll bridge services because the state budget remained in flux. But now that the budget had been finalized, Roberts wants the transportation department to have a report ready for the council’s Aug. 8 meeting.

Toll supporters, including numerous business and civic groups, have said that without tolls, major cutbacks would be required to bring bridge services in line with what DOTD provides other bridges and roads across the state. But toll opponents, including the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, have said toll revenue has been so badly misspent over the years that few, if any, cuts would be necessary if the state focused on providing core services.

“There are so many different things being said that we need to go on a fact-finding mission to determine what is true and what is not,” Roberts said.

Another of Roberts’ resolutions would call for parish administrators to estimate the cost and identify a funding source for the parish to supplement bridge services to meet public expectations. The services in question include an annual $800,000 lighting bill that must be paid by local governmental entities, not DOTD, under state law.

Two other resolutions would ask administrators to determine how much the parish currently pays for stepped-up mowing and landscaping along state roadways and would invite toll-critic state Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Harvey, and a DOTD official to attend the Aug. 8 meeting.

Roberts said he would ask Connick to explain his assurances that bridge services would not have to be reduced significantly without toll revenue.

“We would like to know what he knows, because we certainly have not been able to get those assurances from DOTD,” Roberts said.

Connick said he would “gladly attend” the meeting. “If he wants the facts, I’d be happy to give him the facts as I know them,” Connick said. “The bottom line is that everything can be done more efficiently and for less money. I think we’ve been overcharged.”

Faced with the thorny issue of whether to let the tolls expire Dec. 31 as scheduled, the Legislature passed a bill to let voters in the three parishes decide in the Nov. 6 election. Gov. Bobby Jindal can veto the bill, sign it or let it become law without his signature.

Under the bill, tolls would be extended for 20 years at their current rates if voters approve. Collected from east bank-bound motorists, the toll is $1 for motorists paying cash and 40 cents for those with electronic toll tags. The bill would prohibit bridge tolls from being used to subsidize three Mississippi River ferries, which currently receive about $9 million of the $21 million in toll revenue collected each year.

Today’s meeting begins at 10 a.m. in the General Government Building, 200 Derbigny St., Gretna.

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