Dennis Persica: Bridge tolls gone, but not forgotten

BY DENNIS PERSICA

Special to The Advocate

Dennis Persica
Dennis Persica

The Crescent City Connection tolls died Saturday evening, after a short but debilitating illness.

The tolls had been lingering near death since March 5, when 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant set aside the results of a Nov. 6 referendum.

The tolls had lived a remarkably resilient life, escaping from an earlier descent into oblivion that began in 1964 when Gov. John McKeithen lived up to a campaign promise and removed them from the original single-span river crossing, then known as the Greater New Orleans Bridge.

The GNO, and the tolls, burst into the world with great promise in the 1950s, that era of Eisenhower optimism when suburbs were sprawling and cars grew fins. The GNO became the southernmost crossing of the mighty Mississippi, providing an alternative to the scary ferries – creaky old watercraft that crossed the river Frogger-style, dodging in between larger and faster sea vessels.

It also provided an alternative to the even scarier Huey P. Long bridge upriver in Jefferson Parish. As its name suggests, the Huey P. was from an earlier era, when vehicles were smaller and traffic lanes were narrower. Vehicles eventually got wider, but the lanes on the Huey P. Long didn’t, resulting in notorious white-knuckled drives across the span, which also features a railroad running up the middle of it. (Bowing to modernity, the span is currently being widened.)

As the West Bank grew, partly because the trip there was toll-free, demand for another bridge in addition to the GNO grew with it. After considering various locations, including the notorious “Uptown bridge” idea that stoked fiery opposition among the mansion owners and hereditary members of elite social clubs there, state bridge builders decided on a parallel span next to the GNO.

But to build that new bridge, tolls had to be returned to generate money to pay for it. That too stoked fiery opposition, this time from West Bankers, whose impact on government decision making apparently was considerably weaker than that of their Uptown counterparts.

The tolls’ ability to cheat death amazed many. When Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration came up with a budget that did not include the tolls as a source of revenue, the end seemed all too near. But after the Louisiana Legislature decided to put the tolls up for a public vote, Jindal passed on the chance to veto the measure, and the November referendum was set in motion.

The future looked bright after a narrow victory in that election assured the tolls of at least another 20 years of life. The election results surprised a lot of people because voters don’t normally choose to extend taxes, tolls and fees long after their original purposes have expired.

With the bridge debt finally paid off, there seemed to be no need to continue the tolls. However, a 36-vote majority of voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes chose to retain them. Voters on both sides of the Mississippi River had a chance to vote in the referendum, even though only motorists traveling from the West Bank had to pay the tolls.

But the end came quickly after Morvant’s decision thowing out the November results and calling a new election. That election, held Saturday, sealed the tolls’ fate for good.

The tolls are survived by a tollbooth plaza with no reason to exist now, a span badly in need of a paint job and a still-scary ferry system left without any apparent source of operating revenue.

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.