La. 1 bridge on sounder financial footing, officials said

The state is on track to finalize three federal loans totaling $179 million that would stabilize the financing of a toll bridge in far south Louisiana, officials said Friday.

Michael Bridges, undersecretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said he and others met with federal officials in Washington on Oct. 4.

“We came out of that meeting feeling very good,” Bridges said. “We feel like we are in a very good position right now.”

Bridges made his comments to the Louisiana Transportation Authority, which oversees a $371 million bridge on La. 1 in Leeville, a small community in lower Lafourche Parish.

The authority endorsed the plan.

The bridge crosses Bayou Lafourche and is just west of Grand Isle. It is on the route used to haul about 20 percent of the nation’s crude oil and natural gas supplies. About 8,000 to 10,000 cars and trucks cross the structure daily.

The bridge has been plagued by a variety of problems.

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

Bridges said that, under the new arrangement, the borrowing costs will be paid for with state dollars, along with other debts. Toll revenue will then be used annually to reimburse the state, he said.

“The intent is to make the state whole,” Bridges told the nine-member panel.

The refinancing, which is set to be finalized next month, would also end chances that tolls would have to be increased ahead of schedule.

They are not scheduled to rise again for five years.

The bridge opened in 2009, and problems collecting tolls have been one of the headaches. But state officials told the authority that the collection rate was 96 percent for 2012-13 compared to 81 percent in the previous year.

They also said that a lane used for cash customers has been lengthened to trim delays and a toll booth added.

State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, a member of the authority and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, praised the work of DOTD in the improvements.

State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, a member of the authority and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, criticized the lack of any fee schedule for bond counsel, financial advisers and others.

“I really should have that,” Adley said.