New election ordered on tolls for Crescent City Connection

A Baton Rouge judge struck down the results of last fall’s Crescent City Connection referendum Tuesday and ordered a new election May 4 to determine whether tolls on the span crossing the Mississippi River in New Orleans will be extended for 20 years.

State District Judge William Morvant said a “substantial number of irregularities” occurred during the Nov. 6 election that make its outcome “impossible to determine.”

“This is a great day,” Stop the Tolls LLC director Michael Teachworth, of Harvey on Jefferson Parish’s West Bank, said Tuesday outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse. “It gives us another chance to defeat an unfair tax on the people of the West Bank.”

The renewal referendum passed by just 36 votes out of more than 300,000 ballots cast by registered voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.

The state wasted no time in halting its collection of the toll.

“To comply with the ruling, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development will cease collection of tolls and related services on the Crescent City Connection Bridge as of 6 p.m. tonight,” according to a statement the department released Tuesday afternoon.

“DOTD will continue to work on long-term plans for the dissolution of the CCC,” the statement said.

Morvant cited the testimony Monday of Philip Trupiano, Jefferson Parish’s deputy registrar of voters, who said more than 90 registered voters showed up at their correct voting precincts Nov. 6 but were told their names were not on the books and were given provisional ballots that did not allow them to vote on the toll referendum.

Teachworth, who filed suit in December to nullify the results of the election, said tolls have been on the Crescent City Connection for 24 years.

He noted there are 10 other bridges in Louisiana that cross the Mississippi River, and none have tolls.

“The state pays for everybody else’s bridges,” he said.

The Nov. 6 election was held eight weeks before the tolls were set to expire Dec. 31, 2012.

When asked how motorists should handle the tolls between now and May 4, Patrick Hand III, one of Teachworth’s attorneys, said outside the courthouse, “I’m going to remove my toll tag and go right through.”

Secretary of State Tom Schedler, a defendant in the lawsuit, said in a prepared statement that he hopes residents of Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes “will again participate, let their voice be heard, and have confidence in the final outcome of the election.”

“Clearly, there were some mistakes at the local level for this election and I plan to reach out in the coming weeks to see if the clerks and registrars in those parishes would like some technical assistance from our office,” he said.

“The bottom line for me today is, I trust the process we have in place to contest an election. If you can make your case, then you get another swing.”

Hand called working on the case “the biggest undertaking of my life.”

“People better get out and vote,” he said. “We’ve given them another opportunity to vote.”

Hand called Trupiano a “hero” and said the 90-plus voters that Trupiano identified were legally registered to vote in the Nov. 6 election, but their names were overlooked by poll workers.

In his ruling from the bench, Morvant said those 90-plus voters — who were given provisional ballots that allowed them to vote only for president and not on any local or state issues — were “disenfranchised” from taking part in Crescent City Connection referendum.

The judge described the right to vote as “one of our most preciously guarded constitutional rights.”

Teachworth’s suit claimed that more than 1,600 voters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes were given provisional ballots and that nearly 1,100 of those voters were in their rightful precincts.

Supporters call the tolls essential to the maintenance and improvement of the bridge and West Bank Expressway, while opponents call the fee an unfair tax primarily on West Bank residents.

The tolls generate roughly $22 million annually.