Those of us who don’t have to pay tolls to drive on area highways and bridges are lucky. The same isn’t true for citizens who live on the West Bank in New Orleans. Motorists there on Nov. 6 got stuck with 20 more years of tolls on the two Crescent City Connection bridges.
The decision to keep the tolls won by an 18-vote margin out of 308,768 votes cast. The proposition was opposed in Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes and approved in Orleans.
For many drivers in Jefferson Parish, it’s an almost daily occurrence. They have to pay either $1 in cash or 40 cents if they purchase a toll tag.
More than 155,000 vehicles cross the two spans each day, according to The Times-Picayune. That makes the bridges the nation’s fifth-busiest thoroughfare, the newspaper said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal could have saved those motorists $21 million a year by vetoing the bill setting up that election. If he had, the tolls would have expired this December, and the state would have taken over bridge maintenance, a service it performs for all other bridges in the state.
Jindal has a warped view when it comes to taxes, tolls and tuition. He opposes taxes but has no problem with the other two, which in the final analysis are no different than taxes.
The governor signed the toll legislation at the same time he vetoed four bills that would have allowed Calcasieu, Jefferson and Orleans parishes to conduct a public vote on renewing a 3 percent state car rental taxes for local use.
Most of the Calcasieu tax revenues would have been used to help maintain and operate the Lake Charles Regional Airport, where most of those taxes are collected.
Voters in all three parishes would have had the final word, just as they did in the New Orleans area. So what’s the difference?
Mike Teachworth, organizer of Stop the Tolls, summed up the bridge situation well in a letter to the Jefferson Parish Council.
“If not reversed, this unfair bridge tax, over its 20-year duration, will take close to a quarter of a billion dollars out of the economy of Jefferson Parish,” Teachworth said. “This after Jefferson Parish has already paid in $200 million for the CCC over the last 24 years, and while all other Mississippi River bridges in our state are fully funded by the state with no toll tax imposed on them.”
Teachworth said West Bank residents contribute 80 percent of the revenues, but only represented 20 percent of those who decided the issue on Election Day.
The first of the two bridges opened in 1958 and cost $65 million. Gov. John McKeithen removed the tolls in 1964 as promised, and they stayed off until 1989. That is when the second span was built at a cost $550 million. The tolls were reimposed by the Legislature in order to pay for bridge construction.
Opponents of the tolls said only 19 cents of every toll dollar has actually been spent on the bridge. They said the other money has been used elsewhere.
State Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Harvey, has been fighting the tolls for West Bank residents for many years. He said toll funds have been squandered and used by the Crescent City Connection Division for projects with little or no link to operation of the two bridges.
Even supporters of extending the tolls agree Connick has shed a lot of light on bridge finances and operations. They have promised to work with Connick to ensure every dollar goes into bridge operations. However, those are promises the people of Jefferson Parish have heard before.
Jim Tucker, a former Speaker of the state House of Representatives and a West Bank resident, said the bridge bonds are paid off, and the tolls should end.
“Over the next 20 years, are we willing to write a $400 million-plus blank check to the Department of Transportation and Development given that no guaranteed projects for the future were identified in the legislation?” Tucker asked. “Not me.”
Opponents of extending the tolls say they will challenge the results of the election. Patrick Hand III, a West Bank attorney, said a petition will be filed asking for a recount of all absentee and early voting ballots. A new vote may also be requested, he said. Connick said a recount should be mandatory when elections are this close.
The chances of getting a recount, a re-vote or a court verdict are slim. The courts are always reluctant to overturn election outcomes or call for new elections.
Those who live on the West Bank were literally “taken to the cleaners.” They need to place the blame for their plight where it belongs. The legislation setting up the toll vote was approved 39-0 in the state Senate and 85-17 in the House, and it was signed by Gov. Jindal.
The real fly in this ointment was letting Orleans Parish voters participate in an election which didn’t directly affect most of the parish’s residents.
The bridge toll experience in the New Orleans area will make it extremely difficult for the state to construct future toll roads and bridges anywhere else in Louisiana.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].