Financing for bridge in far south Louisiana may be stabilizing

Prospects are bright that the state will be able to refinance a bridge in far south Louisiana that is failing to generate the expected toll revenue, state officials said Thursday.

The $365 million structure, on La. 1 in Leeville, crosses Bayou Lafourche and is just west of Grand Isle.

It is the route used to haul about 20 percent of the nation’s crude oil and natural gas supplies.

Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera issued a report in December that said the tolls were failing to generate enough money to pay off borrowing costs, as originally planned.

Michael Bridges, undersecretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said without a new loan the existing one will be in default on Dec. 1.

But Bridges told the nine-member Louisiana Transportation Authority, which oversees the bridge, that the state has gotten positive signs by federal authorities about chances to refinance the loan, with a manageable service debt.

“It’s good, it’s very positive,” he said.

Under the plan, state officials will request a three-prong loan that totals $176 million.

The rest of the bridge costs are paid for from other sources.

Bridges said that, while the refinancing plans faces numerous hurdles, the hope is to have it finalized by mid-November, which would avoid any default.

He also said that, if the loans win final approval, no unscheduled toll hikes will be needed.

The bridge financing is just one of several problems that have beset the structure, which opened in 2009.

It replaced one that was finished in 1969, and which used to sit in 40 feet of water because of Louisiana’s disappearing coastline instead of the 10-foot depth the lift bridge was built for.

About 8,000 to 10,000 cars and trucks use the bridge daily.

Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary for the DOTD, said the state has lengthened the cash line for tolls from about 650 feet to roughly half a mile, added a toll booth and is monitoring shifts based on traffic needs.

Kalivoda said toll violations are being sent out within 30 days and notices are being sent to errant drivers in Texas and Mississippi.

Purpera said that, in the past, officials failed to send delinquent notices to nearly 40,000 violators as required by state law and that up to 300,000 cars and trucks used the bridge without paying.

Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA1 Coalition, said he is encouraged by prospects for a new loan and other steps to aid motorists. “This is all great,” Boulet said after the meeting.

State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, a member of the authority, said a recent fishing rodeo at Port Fourchon sparked heavy traffic but he did not get any phone calls about toll delays.

State Rep. Jerry Gisclair, D-Larose, whose legislative district includes the bridge, said in the past his office and those of Chabert and Boulet were bombarded by an array of complaints about issues surrounding the structure.

“They are getting fewer and fewer,” Gisclair said of the calls.