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Small slice of tolls pays for bridge

BGR: River ferries subsidized unfairly

Wednesday, April 27, 2011
By Paul Rioux
The Times-Picayune

Just 19 cents of every toll dollar collected on the Crescent City Connection goes toward policing and maintaining the bridge, according to a Bureau of Governmental Research report that says the tolls are improperly being spent on “far-flung” services and should be allowed to expire at the end of 2012.

Bridge users are unfairly required to heavily subsidize three Mississippi River ferries that consume 32 cents of every toll dollar, or about $7 million of the annual $21 million in toll revenue, said the report released Tuesday afternoon.

The ferries are easily the single biggest line item in a bridge budget bloated with expenses that have little or nothing to do with operating the bridge, according to the report, which said the state should pick up costs to operate and maintain the bridge as it does for all other Mississippi bridges.

In perhaps the most eye-popping statistic in the 20-page report, the Crescent City Connection paid 21 cents for every vehicle using the bridge compared with $5.46 for every pedestrian or vehicle that used a ferry last year.

“Drivers on the Crescent City Connection should not be required to subsidize ferry riders,” the 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 unequivocal stance by the well-respected nonprofit group is sure to help shape the growing debate about the tolls’ fate.

The report comes as West Bank legislators and business leaders are working to establish a task force to review a series of bridge audits and recommend whether the tolls should be renewed.

With bonds financing the bridge’s second span set to be paid off two months before tolls expire Dec. 31, 2012, some bridge users have questioned why tolls should be renewed, especially after many planned West Bank road-improvement projects were never completed because anticipated toll surpluses failed to materialize.

Noting that the state has a multibillion-dollar backlog of transportation projects, renewal proponents say the tolls provide a reliable source of revenue for bridge maintenance.

But BGR’s report said “only a small portion” of toll revenue goes toward operation and maintenance costs. Eliminating ferry subsidies, toll-collection costs and money spent on unrelated projects would reduce annual bridge operating costs to about $5.3 million, which the report said can be covered by state transportation money.

The report said the Crescent City Connection spends almost as much money collecting tolls as it does maintaining and policing the bridge.

“In 2010, drivers paid about 16 cents on the dollar for the privilege of paying tolls,” said the report.

The report said further study is needed to determine whether the bridge should retain its 25-member Police Department at an annual cost of $2.5 million.

The toll, which is collected from east bank-bound motorists, is $1 per two-axle vehicle for those paying cash and 40 cents for those with electronic toll tags.

Toll revenue accounts for about three-quarters of the bridge’s $27 million budget, meaning wholesale budget cuts would be needed if the tolls lapse.

Extending the tolls beyond 2012 would take legislative action, and Gov. Bobby Jindal said last week that his administration will remain neutral on the issue. State transportation officials are working with a consultant to develop a “sunset plan” to dramatically scale back bridge operations in case the tolls aren’t renewed.

The BGR report acknowledges that the ferries “provide significant benefits to riders who live or work nearby,” but it said it is unfair to make bridge users pay to keep the boats afloat.

The report said the ferries should be financed by the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for six other ferries across the state at a total cost of $12.7 million. The three ferries subsidized by the Crescent City Connection cost about $8 million a year and generate just $250,000 in fares.

The trust fund, which is supplied by state and federal gas taxes, is set to pay out $1.25 billion this year to operate, maintain and build transportation infrastructure.

If the trust fund is deemed insufficient, the state should consider imposing fares on pedestrians, who ride the ferries for free, and changing a state law to increase the maximum $1 fare for vehicles, the report said.

The report also recommended reassessing the ferries statewide and possibly terminating some of the routes.

The report can be viewed at BGR’s website,

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