Officials opt out of bridge re-vote

Advocate file photo -- The Crescent City Connection bridge spans the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Algiers. Advocate staff photo by Pat Semansky
Advocate file photo -- The Crescent City Connection bridge spans the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Algiers. Advocate staff photo by Pat Semansky

Toll bridge  workers  to lose jobs

This week’s legal victory by Crescent City Connection toll opponents guarantees that voters will hear some familiar arguments about the fees for the next two months, but early indications are that May’s election will differ from November’s in several ways.

When the Department of Transportation and Development stopped toll collection Tuesday evening, it was the most visible effect of state District Judge William Morvant’s decision to grant a new election on the 20-year toll extension.

The department announced Wednesday that as of Friday it will terminate 31 temporary workers who were hired pending the outcome of the November vote.

Toll opponents appear jubilant as they prepare to try to convince voters to make the shutdown permanent May 4.

But while the basic arguments for and against the tolls haven’t changed, the political landscape in the region has shifted since Nov. 6.

Voters in two of the affected parishes, Jefferson and Plaquemines, handily defeated the toll renewal on Election Day, and it only passed by 36 votes based on support in New Orleans.

Consequently, it’s not clear whether toll proponents will be able to count on the support of high-profile politicians or a well-funded media campaign to push for the fees’ renewal.

Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts said he plans to sit out this election because he thinks the time to make passionate pleas is past. During the November cycle, Roberts was one of many politicians who appeared at news conferences scheduled by Bridging Progress, a political action committee created to support a toll renewal.

Roberts said his position on the tolls hasn’t changed, and he still believes the roughly $22 million they generate annually are vital to maintaining the bridge and West Bank Expressway.

Roberts said voters know the issues in the election and can make up their own minds. However, he wants voters to hold politicians who oppose the fees responsible for persuading the state to pay for costly improvements to the Harvey Tunnel and West Bank Expressway without the toll revenue.

“I don’t intend to get involved in the second election,” said Roberts, who mentioned state Rep. Patrick Connick as someone who should be held accountable for those projects’ fate. “If people believe that the state is going to step up and do what the state has said it’s going to do, I can live with that.”

Councilman Elton Lagasse also has said he plans to sit out the election, while New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said the mayor will continue to educate voters on the consequences of the tolls disappearing.

The plans of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Lonnie Greco and Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson, all toll renewal proponents, couldn’t be determined on Wednesday.

G. Patrick Hand III, the attorney who secured the new election, said he expects many local politicians to follow Roberts’ lead because the issue has become toxic with so many voters. Hand said Stop The Tolls LLC, the group that challenged the election, heard from disenfranchised and angry voters during its investigation.

“They threw all these scare tactics out there, and a lot of it wasn’t true,” Hand said.

Connick said he welcomes the responsibility of having to find funding for Jefferson Parish projects, saying it will be better than seeing millions squandered through waste and abuse. Connick said that if politicians remove patronage and favoritism from the process, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get things done.

“I welcome that burden,” he said.

Jefferson Parish President John Young appeared surprised that politicians were sitting out the election but said it’s not up to one person to secure funding for the parish if the toll revenue ends. He said all elected officials need to band together to get projects done because it’s the state’s responsibility to complete the work.

“We need to speak with one voice,” said Young, who noted that a parish deal to provide grass-cutting on the bridge and expressway on a reimbursement basis is on hold.

While some politicians may be changing course, several members of the business community remain committed to getting the renewal.

Todd Murphy, the president of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, said the business groups in Bridging Progress still see the tolls as vitally important.

Although the exact role of Bridging Progress in the upcoming election is unclear, he said the group will not sit idly by.

“We’re still trying to tie some things down,” Murphy said.

Toll collectors include 18 permanent employees who have civil service protection.

Bambi Hall, a DOTD spokeswoman, said officials are still trying to determine what will happen to that group.

Toll collectors earn about $22,000 on average, Hall said.

She said DOTD will be monitoring traffic on the bridge to see if any adjustments need to be made.