In The News › State panel votes to issue report in favor of renewing Crescent City Connection tolls

State panel votes to issue report in favor of renewing Crescent City Connection tolls

By Paul Rioux, The Times-Picayune

If the Crescent City Connection tolls expire, the bridge’s budget would be slashed from $27 million to about $5 million, forcing wholesale cutbacks and a dependence on the under-funded state transportation department to pick up the slack. That’s the picture painted by a task force analyzing bridge finances.

The state Legislature-created panel on Friday voted 7-1 to issue a final report urging lawmakers to renew the tolls before they sunset at the end of the year.

The survival of three Mississippi River ferries, which are heavily subsidized by bridge tolls, would be “questionable at best” if the tolls expire, according to the 60-page report.

The report also said bridge maintenance and capital improvements would lag behind the “enhanced level of service” motorists currently enjoy thanks to the tolls.

“The bridge will simply be one of more than 13,000 bridges in the Louisiana system and approximately 1,500 in the region vying for limited state funds,” the report said.

But task force member Michael Teachworth, who cast the dissenting vote, said the bridge’s budget has been so bloated with wasteful spending and services the state should cover that the remaining $5 million is enough to maintain basic bridge operations, including policing ($2.5 million), landscaping ($1.2 million) and lighting ($800,000).

He said the state Department of Transportation and Development should run the ferries, which lose more than $8 million a year, and maintain the bridge as it does with all other Mississippi River spans.

Teachworth’s plan, which is included in the report as an option in case tolls aren’t renewed, assumes the bridge will continue receiving about $5 million in locally generated state vehicle license fees from Highway Fund No. 2.

But Pamela Lormand, who took the lead in drafting the panel’s recommendations, said the fund is a “suspect source of revenue” because state transportation officials could ask the Legislature to redirect some or all of the money to cover the state’s increased costs for maintaining the bridge if tolls expire.

The task force’s recommendation to renew the tolls is at odds with a report released in April by the non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research, which said the tolls should be allowed to expire because just 19 cents of every toll dollar goes toward bridge maintenance and policing.

The BGR report said too much money is spent on “far-flung” projects and services, including the ferries, which consume 32 cents of every bridge toll dollar.

BGR president Janet Howard said the state ran the bridge with few if any problems when the span was toll-free during a 25-year period ending in 1989.

“I think the task force is making some very negative assumptions that the state is not going to invest in the largest bridge in the state,” she said.

Task force member Glenn Orgeron said BGR took an overly narrow view of what is an essential bridge service, saying the bridge is part of a transit system that includes the ferries and miles of access roads.

“It’s simplistic to say we’re going to turn everything over to the state and expect them to pick it up with no additional funding,” he said.

Collected from east bank-bound motorists, the toll is $1 for motorists paying cash and 40 cents for those with electronic toll tags.

With bonds financing the bridge’s second span set to be paid off before the tolls expire Dec. 31, some motorists have questioned why the tolls should be renewed.

Those questions were amplified after a series of audits in recent years revealed that chronic mismanagement of bridge finances had frittered away anticipated toll surpluses that were supposed to pay for West Bank road projects.

The examples of poor planning and wasteful spending included paying a $4 million annual premium for an insurance policy deemed unnecessary and a recently completed $3.8 million addition to the bridge’s Algiers offices that could sit empty if the tolls are not renewed.

The task force’s report acknowledges bridge management by a division of DOTD had become “somewhat stagnated and Balkanized.” But the report said there have been significant improvements in the past couple of years as top-level DOTD officials have exercised greater oversight.

The report recommends privatizing the ferries, which cost $9 million a year to operate but generate just $250,000 in fees, resulting in daily losses of about $24,000 that are offset by bridge tolls.

The plan calls for buying newer energy efficient ferries and generating additional revenue by selling advertising space and concessions in ferry terminals.

The task force also proposed an undetermined increase in the $1 ferry toll for vehicles and ending the free ride for pedestrians by charging them a $1.25 fare that is commensurate with buses and street cars.
Teachworth’s plan would turn all three ferries over to the state, which operates five other Mississippi River ferries upstream.

Pro-toll task force members said the local ferries don’t qualify for state control because they don’t link state roadways. But Teachworth said the Legislature could waive that requirement.

The 10-member task force, which met 14 times beginning in July, was appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal from a list of nominees from various business and civic groups.

Voting for the recommendation to renew the tolls were William Aaron, Fay Faron, Brian Heiden, Richard Legendre, Lormand, Orgeron and David Pavlovich. Manuel Blanco and Frederick Sigur did not attend Friday’s meeting.

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