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Referendum to decide Crescent City Connection tolls

2nd July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

As the 2012 legislative session convened, New Orleans Council President Jackie Clarkson called a hearing on the proposed removal of tolls from the Crescent City Connection. The tolls were set to expire at the end of the year, and most of the West Bank State House delegation, led by Rep. Patrick Connick (R-Marrero), supported their conclusion, arguing that the bridges were paid for a decade ago, so there was no reason “to fleece” the public any longer.

These State legislators contended that the tolls have done little more than underwrite bureaucratic waste to the tune of millions of dollars for the past decade, and failed to pay for even a handful of the West Bank road infrastructure repairs that were promised last time the tolls were renewed.

At Clarkson’s hearing, though, not one person came to speak in support of removing the tolls. The front rows of the Council Chamber were packed with advocates of renewal—at least to the degree that the tolls on the CCC underwrite the Algiers and Gretna to Canal Street ferries. When the tolls go, funding for the ferries ends as well.

Clarkson and her District “C” colleague Kristen Palmer both worried that the loss of the ferries would isolate Algiers from the heart of the City. At the time, bicycle activist Jamie Wine of Bike Easy argued that ending the ferries would hobble biking when both Jefferson and Orleans have made more advances in the last five years than virtually any American city.

“Intermodal compatibility is a key factor in building a bike-friendly community. RTA and JET buses allow bicycles without additional fare or passes,” which has helped bikers travel across the metro easily. But, she added in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, “Ferry connection is the main way that Algiers bicycle riders and pedestrians access economic opportunity on the East Bank. Without ferries New Orleans will not be able to attain additional advances in bicycle friendly status.”

Other Algiers residents at the hearing maintained that the loss of the toll booths impact traffic patterns on the CCC, especially as multiple lanes turn into four without the slowing that occurs at the toll gates. The ferries prove an alternative route, thus alleviating traffic patterns when the CCC experiences major breakdowns or blockages. And, they feared that the proposal allowing private companies to operate the ferries would push average tolls on the boats to close to at least $4.00 per pedestrian ride, currently a free service. Some said that drives could pay as much as $20 per car, a 200 percent increase over the current rate.

“It’s not that we’re unwilling to pay,” one lady said at the Transportation hearing, “It’s just that this is too much.”

Connick had little patience with these arguments, noting that the average car trip on the ferries amounted to costs of over $30 per vehicle, and still constituted a comparatively small percentage of West-East Bank travel.

While he hoped that the State Department of Transportation Budget would pick up the costs for the Algiers and Gretna ferry lines—as the State funds all other ferry lines crossing the Missis­sippi—even that not coming to pass was a reason to push for the tolls to continue.

In a year of deep budgetary distress, little support came from the Governor’s office or the House Appropriations Committee for the state to pick up the tab. Then, late in the legislative session, Connick and the Governor both agreed to a proposal by Rep. Karen Gaudet St. Germain (D-Pierre Part) authorizing a referendum in Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes, with the general electorate deciding if the tolls should continue.

Should St. Germain’s House Bill 2012 be approved by a majority of the voters from all three parishes in the fall, CCC tolls would continue through 2033. The revenue derived, roughly $22 million a year, would mainly underwrite operations and maintenance of the span and the ferries, but the first $10 million of annual toll revenues would be placed in a special capital fund to be used to issue bonds or pay cash for specific projects to improve the bridges or the roadways leading to the spans and along U.S. 90Z between Interstate 10 and U.S. 90.

The next $6 million would be used to pay for ongoing expenses from traffic lights to gardening, with the remainder transferred into the capital project fund to be overseen by the Regional Planning Commission of the New Orleans Area.

The hope is that long promised project including wider on ramps at to the CCC at Tchoupitoulas St. and at Peters Rd would finally come to pass, as well as improvements of Barataria Blvd, the Harvey Tunnel, and the MacArthur Interchange. All of the aforementioned were promised to be funded by the bridge tolls ten years ago, but virtually no progress was made. That was the essence of Connick’s complaint.

Whether voters reject or approve the referendum, Senate Bill 599 by Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, comes into force. Signed by Governor Jindal last week, it empowers DOTD to contract with a private company to operate the New Orleans area ferries. Addressing concerns that per vehicle costs would exceed the average person’s ability to pay, the legislation also authorizes the Orleans Parish share of a special license plate fund in the New Orleans area to be used to operate the Algiers-Canal Street ferry. No additional funds were allocated for the Gretna Ferry or for the St. Bernard-Plaquemines Route.

Should voters approve an extension of the tolls this fall, Adley’s bill also sets up a plan on how surplus revenues, of between $10 to $30 million. If rejected, CCC tolls will automatically expire on December 31, 2012.

Critics of ending the tolls have maintained that the answer lies in the bus rates that locals pay. Currently, in Jefferson Parish, bus fares amount to $1.50. In Orleans, the same standard fare is $1.25. Increasing the Orleans rate to the Jefferson rate, would provide almost $6 million to underwrite ferry operation, but poverty advocates said that such a jump would impact Orleanian travelers too greatly.

This article was originally published in the July 2, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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