New Orleans — Business leaders from Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes have created a new political action committee to rally support for keeping the Crescent City Connection tolls, all while accusing some local politicians of “grandstanding” to appease voters.
Members of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, Jefferson Chamber of Commerce and a host of other business groups announced the creation of “Bridging Progress” on Tuesday. The group is dedicated to educating voters in all three parishes about the benefits of the tolls and attempting to convince them to keep the fees Nov. 6. Voters will decide whether to keep a $1 charge for drivers or a 40-cent toll-tag fee.
The announcement, which came at a news conference that featured the CCC as its backdrop, is the latest salvo in the war of words over the bridge and tolls. Jefferson Parish President John Young and State Rep. Patrick Connick have been two of the most visible opponents of renewing the tolls, with Young calling them an “unfair tax” and Connick likening them to leeches sucking revenue away from the West Bank. There also have been several grossest efforts organized by residents to oppose the fees.
But business leaders characterized those efforts as misguided attempts at appeasement, or knee-jerk reactions without a careful consideration of the facts. Leon Giorgio, chairman of the Jefferson Business Council, said politicians should be encouraging residents to support the tolls because of the roughly $22 million they generate that maintains the bridge. Instead, Giorgio said, many political leaders are scared of being caught up in the political backlash and have taken the easy route.
“We call upon these politicians to be leaders,” Giorgio said. “Leadership means making tough decisions.”
Business people said the bridge is the best maintained span in Louisiana, largely because it has a dedicated funding source. They cited releases by the state Department of Transportation and Development that show that if the tolls are discontinued, the state will eliminate funding for lighting and landscaping on the bridge while reducing grass cutting, painting and inspections. Michael Hecht, the head of GNO, Inc., said that Louisiana and New Orleans have seen a recent resurgence in economic growth that bodes well for the region. However, when businesses consider locating in areas, they focus on labor availability, business costs and logistics. A well-maintained Crescent City Connection is crucial to getting workers to local business and ensuring ease of access to both sides of the river, he said. Failing to renew the tolls could jeopardize the area’s growth.
“If we do not do this, one our greatest assets, a critical asset, will become a liability,” Hecht said.
One of the main critiques about the tolls is that, for years, they’ve generated millions of dollars in revenue, but residents, particularly on the West Bank have seen little benefit from that money. Recently released state figures show that West Bank residents produce roughly three times more toll-tag revenue than east bank residents, yet toll critics note that long-promised capital improvements to the West Bank Expressway have never materialized. They complain that money promised for the bridge has been squandered on ferries or used on other projects in the state.
While business leaders acknowledged mismanagement of toll revenues in the past, they said that some of the complaints about the state have been overblown. They also noted that with the Regional Planning Commission helping to manage the span, they are confident that some of the worst problems will be eliminated. D’Juan Hernandez, the president of the Algiers Development Foundation, said toll critics are overlooking some of the benefits they’ve received from the fees.
“The truth is that the West Bank of the Mississippi River has received critical upgrades,” he said.
Todd Murphy, president of the Jefferson Chamber, said that of the roughly 3,000 bridges in the state, the Crescent City Connection is the highest rated, and one of the best looking. In addition to the actual bridge, the state provides services on 13 miles of roadway. Murphy said that some politicians may call the toll a tax, but it’s really an investment.
“We don’t see this as a tax, we see this as a necessity,” Murphy said.
Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris, one of the few West Bank politicians to come out publicly and support the toll, said that his city can’t afford to pay for landscaping or lighting if the tolls disappear. Harris said that residents should really consider what they’re receiving for their money. The group plans to drive home that point in broadcast, radio and print ads prior to the elections.
“It’s even cheaper to cross the bridge than to buy a candy bar,” Harris said.