Algiers — A coalition of West Bank business owners is challenging a recent assertion by some local business leaders that the Crescent City Connection tolls are a good investment. Instead, toll opponents say, the tax is another attempt by the wealthy few to profit from oppressing the many.
Roughly 142 West Bank businesses have banded together to express their opposition to a proposition to renew the tolls on the Nov. 6 ballot. Representatives of the coalition held a news conference on Tuesday where they lambasted the phalanx of business organizations that make up “Bridging Progress,” which is advocating for the tolls to continue. Coalition members were joined by State. Rep Patrick Connick, a toll opponent, who accused Bridging Progress of engaging in a “campaign of lies” designed to scare voters into keeping the tolls.
“That’s the old way of doing business in Louisiana,” proclaimed Connick, who likened the fight against tolls to the fight against tyranny once extolled by Thomas Jefferson. “(Coalition members) are changing the way the game is played in Louisiana, and those in power don’t like that.”
The debate over the Crescent City Connection tolls has been filled with accusations and condemnations as advocates on both sides claim their opponents are misguided, uninformed or conniving. At stake is roughly $22 million in toll revenue that would disappear in December if the fees are not continued. Voters throughout New Orleans, Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Parish will vote on the issue, and the state Department of Transportation and Development has said that if the tolls are not renewed, there will be cutbacks in how the bridge is maintained.
Toll proponents say the bridge is a key factor in economic development in the region and that with new oversight the toll revenues will go to improving the bridge and the West Bank Expressway. They accused Connick and other politicians of “grandstanding” instead of making wise decisions.
But toll opponents say the state has a track record of big promises and non-existent results. John Roberts, who owns several West Bank gas stations, said that in 1998 he supported the tolls as a board member for the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce because he believed the fees would fund capital improvements on the West Bank. Instead, money was wasted, and no major projects have materialized, he said.
“Their interest is not the West Bankers’ interest,” said Roberts, who added that residents have heard all the promises of more oversight before. “That was essentially the same argument as in 1998, when I supported the tolls. That hasn’t happened.”
Several residents said they’re tired of having to pay an extra tax because they live on the West Bank. Bonnie Mullen, who lives in Harvey, said she can’t understand how anyone could think renewing the tolls is a good idea. Brenda Terrell said toll revenues have been spent recklessly. She said she is tired of the West Bank, which generates roughly three times as much toll tag revenue as the east bank, having to subsidize the rest of the state’s pet projects.
“We’re not responsible for everybody’s everything,” Terrell said. “From what was uncovered, it seems like this was their slush fund.
Roberts said he organized the toll opposition by simply emailing a survey to some business contacts and asking them to forward it to others. He said his group, “Businesses Against Toll,” doesn’t have a hefty marketing budget or slick ad campaign, but he believes it represents what most people feel on the West Bank.
Connick claimed the toll supporters are driven by a desire to keep a steady source of revenue flowing into their pockets. He said the push to keep the tolls is being driven by asphalt and construction companies who worry that their businesses will suffer if the tolls disappear.
Connick also said the group has tried to sell residents on the “enhanced service” the tolls provide, when in reality the Crescent City Connection receives the same level of service as most bridges in the state. The tolls have generated nearly $400 million in revenue since 1998, and Connick said residents should just consider whether they’ve gotten a good return on their investment.
“Our tax money is going someplace else, and our toll money is being wasted,” Connick said. “We’re left with nothing.”