In The News › No tolls to cross the Crescent City Connection: Editorial

No tolls to cross the Crescent City Connection: Editorial

Times-Picayune Editorial

Judge William Morvant allowed drivers to do something Tuesday that they should’ve been able to do before now: Drive across the Crescent City Connection for free. The Baton Rouge judge threw out the results of a November referendum on extending the tolls because some voters weren’t allowed to cast ballots and ordered a new election May 4. Since the tolls were only authorized through Dec. 31 under the old law, the judge’s ruling means that they can no longer be collected.

Finally, fairness.

Drivers crossing the Crescent City Connection had been the only ones along the entire Mississippi River who had to pay a toll. The tolls were put in place in 1989 to pay for the bridge and should have been allowed to expire at the end of 2012. Instead, lawmakers put the 20-year extension on the ballot in November. And some elected officials who couldn’t bear to see $22 million a year in toll revenue evaporate tried to scare voters into keeping them. It worked, but barely.

The toll renewal passed by 18 votes, according to the official election count in November. Opponents pushed for a recount, which was done in February. That count increased the margin of victory to 36 votes out of 308,000 ballots cast.

But Mike Teachworth, director of Stop the Tolls, had filed a lawsuit arguing that more than 1,000 voters given provisional ballots only allowing them to vote in federal races were disenfranchised. Judge Morvant agreed.

Testimony Monday showed that some voters given provisional ballots were properly registered and in the correct polling place. Philip Trupiano, the chief deputy at the Jefferson Parish registrar of voters office, said he found that more than 90 eligible voters weren’t allowed to vote on the tolls. In his ruling, Judge Morvant said Mr. Trupiano’s testimony was compelling. Ninety more votes certainly could have changed the outcome.

“Clearly, there were some mistakes at the local level for this election,” Secretary of State Tom Schedler said Tuesday. His office and local registrars and election officials need to figure out what went wrong and fix it.

The question now is whether the bridge will remain toll-free. It should.

The bridge debt was paid off in November, and there is no credible argument for keeping the tolls. There are no tolls on the Huey P. Long Bridge a few miles upriver from the Crescent City Connection or on the bridge over the Mississippi at Baton Rouge. Those bridges are maintained with state and federal revenues, and the state can do the same for the Crescent City Connection.

Toll proponents did a lot of handwringing last fall over the cost of lighting the bridge and mowing the grass on the banks underneath it. They also focused on the future of the Algiers ferry, which was given a dedicated source of funding in the toll extension. But the state maintains and subsidizes other ferries upriver from New Orleans and had said it was looking for ways to make the ferries more self-sustaining.

None of those concerns are reason to keep $22 million a year in tolls. Nor are the claims by GNO Inc., the Jefferson Business Council, the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and others that the tolls are an economic development tool. That argument doesn’t make sense.

The tolls put businesses on the West Bank at a disadvantage. Jim Tucker, a Terrytown real estate developer and former speaker of the state House of Representatives, put it this way last fall: “Economists will tell you that an impairment to commerce reduces commerce. … It is not so much the cost of crossing the bridge, but the mental hurdle of having ‘to pay’ to go somewhere” that is the impediment.

When the tolls were put in place, residents were promised all sorts of improvements that never materialized. The Bureau of Governmental Research reported in 2011 that only 19 cents of every dollar in tolls went to maintaining and policing the bridge. Almost as much — 16 cents — went to collecting and administering the tolls. That is absurd.

Bridge managers have been sloppy with the money as well. A legislative auditor’s report last year found that 11 contracts to repair ferries, totaling $444,000, were executed after work had already started. The audit also found change orders to no-bid contracts that increased the amount beyond the maximum value for no-bid contracts.

“This is a great day,” Mr. Teachworth said Tuesday. It “gives us another chance to defeat an unfair tax on the people of the West Bank.” That ought to be an easy choice for voters this time.

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