Dennis Persica: Toll issue moving to Capitol arena

BY DENNIS PERSICA

Special to The Advocate

What has happened in the last few weeks in connection with the Crescent City Connection tolls is kind of like watching a floodwall fail. First it starts with a crack. And if you don’t have a little Dutch boy around to plug the hole, it gets worse.

As the water flowing through the dike increases, it wears away the barrier even more, letting more water through, which, of course, just increases the amount of floodwall that’s being washed away. Eventually, things reach a critical mass and what’s supposed to hold back the water doesn’t any more. And, as many of us learned after Katrina, water seeks its true level by filling up the streets on what used to be the dry side of the levee.

On the toll issue, the first fissure appeared March 5 when 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant ruled that the Nov. 6 referendum extending the tolls for another 20 years disenfranchised about 1,000 voters who were given provisional ballots on Election Day. The provisional ballots didn’t have the toll referendum on them, so those voters were deprived of their right to vote in that election, Morvant said. In a referendum that was carried by only 36 votes, 1,000 additional votes can make a big difference, so Morvant ordered a new election for May 4.

The CCC became a free bridge just hours after Morvant ruled. Toll-takers left the tollbooths, and signs went up telling drivers to just go on through. The bridge has been toll-free ever since, and the crack in the wall has grown wider for the most part.

Toll supporters push the theory that the process of collecting tolls helps control traffic flow. But motorists are putting that theory to a real-world test now, and most of the feedback I’ve heard is that traffic is better without the tolls, which would seem to be a good reason to vote against their renewal when another vote is held.

Within a couple of weeks of the court ruling, however, Jefferson Parish Council members Chris Roberts and Elton Lagasse suggested the Legislature should delay the May revote. The entire council later adopted a resolution to that effect. This doesn’t mean they’ve turned against the tolls, only that they see slim chances of tolls surviving a new referendum if it’s held soon.

Toll supporters fear that the euphoria of crossing the Crescent City Connection for free for the first time in nearly three decades will outweigh any concerns voters may have about what will happen to the bridge if money gets tight. They want to give drivers a few months to see if things are better on the CCC or if they deteriorate once the state Department of Transportation and Development spends all the money left over from toll collection.

Backers of the toll renewal hold out the specter of an unlit, unwashed bridge, badly in need of a paint job, with overgrown grass and weeds on those parts of the West Bank Expressway where regular landscape maintenance is necessary.

Opponents of the tolls, on the other hand, say toll supporters are using scare tactics and misinformation to try to keep a revenue source alive. For now, the momentum seems to be with those opposed to the renewal.

But a lot depends on what the Legislature, which convenes next month, decides to do about the May referendum, and on Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has to sign off on whatever the lawmakers decide.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.