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A Clockwork Orange
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Voters Get Say on Whether to Keep Crescent City Connection Tolls
The bell tolls for fees that drivers pay while heading across the Mississippi River into New Orleans on the Crescent City Connection, but a question appearing on Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines ballots could continue the tolls on that stretch of road for another 20 years.
Despite the overwhelming support the referendum saw in the State Legislature, opponents of the bill say that any continuation of tolls would be an undue burden and punishment for those who live on the Westbank.
Rambling Through Red Stick
Several months and even more floor discussions and committee meetings moved the proposed amendment from conception to ballot (as HB935 became HB1212 and then moved between both houses—twice—and finally signed by the Governor and making Act 865).
The 20-plus page document passed by both houses of the legislature with an overwhelming majority the first time through, but when it made its way back, the House rejected the Senate’s amendments—which included limiting the vote to Jefferson and Orleans.
Following that rejection, a joint committee of House and Senate members convened and agreed that most of the other amendments—including how to allocate remaining fund balances in any of the created accounts with CCCB toll revenue and a list of DOTD projects that the money could potentially go to with approval—were acceptable. The only one outright rejected by the committee was the exclusion of Plaquemines from the vote. Following the committee’s report, the final signed version that made its way up the chain passed with far more than the two-thirds majority required for placing an amendment on the ballot (House voted 85-17 and then the senate passed with a vote of 39-0).
“1212 absolutely gives the right to the voters in this area of the CCC Bridge to continue the tolls, if they so choose,” said Rep. Karen Gaudet St. Germain (D-60) who chairs the transportation committee and originally submitted the bill. “With the amendments coming up, it gets a lot more specific. It makes sure that DOTD only expends those tolls on the maintenance, operations and inspections of that specific span, which is described in this bill.”
20 More Years?
The new law would lock in the current rates of twenty cents ($0.20) per axle for vehicles with a toll tag and fifty cents ($0.50) for all cash transactions for the next 20-years. That means drivers without a tag will still be charged $1.00. Those fees generate about $22 million per year in revenue.
The legislation also goes into much greater detail on just how the monies will be collected and it delineates a potential order of how the money will be spent, along with oversights for that process. At least $10 million of the collected toll money will be put into a fund to directly assist in operating and all other projects regarding the two bridges. After that, the money goes to separate funds, controlled by the treasurer in the same manner as all other state funds, according to the bill.
The other chief difference is that none of the money collected would go to funding the ferries, which representatives say that the DOTD is seeking to privatize, rather than funneling money from toll payers on the bridge to ferry boats. Rep. Patrick Connick (who represents the 84th District in Jefferson), specifically spoke to this point, saying he could not vote for a bill that would allow that practice to continue.
“In the past, the money collected from toll payers was going all over the state. Does this prevent that from happening?” Connick asked Rep. St. Germain when she presented the revised version of the bill before the legislature.
To which St. Germain responded: “Absolutely. We will not let the sins of the past come back.”
The law would also add some oversight measures for the collected funds, including mandatory reports by the DOTD and by Legislative Auditors with-in the first year of operation following the amendments implementation.
However, the measure still has opponents.
At a news conference held on Tuesday, October 30 in Algiers, members of community businesses—mostly from the Westbank—opposing the referendum said that the move would constitute, “an unfair tax on the Westbank.”
The tolls would remain in effect until the sunset date in 2033, and at nearly $21 million in revenues averaged a year, that would be some $40 million. With such a huge chunk of change, opposition cites that there has been little to no oversight over the last 13 years. And though new measures have been included in the proposed legislation, there were measures in the last law passed in 1998, but they were never implemented.
Members of the legislature acknowledged this problem as well during their own debates.
“We create laws in these green books every year, but the truth is DOTD has never followed the law when it comes to the Crescent City Connection Bridge,” Rep. Connick said. “DOTD has failed us. They have to look inside themselves and change.”
Not all Algiers power brokers are opposed to the tolls. City Councilwomen Jackie Clarkson and Kristin Gisleson-Palmer have been publicly throwing their support behind continuing the tolls, arguing that the tolls are necessary to further economic development in the area. Mayor Mitch has also come out in favor of keeping the tolls.
But in the end, most legislators agree that it is for the people who actually pay to decide if the measures should be continued or abandoned.
“I think the people who pay the tolls deserve to say either they want them or they don’t,” Jefferson Parish elected Rep. Bryan Adams (R-85).
The vote for the tolls hits the polls November 6.
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