Officials demand engineer release details
by Allen Powell II
New Orleans bureau
December 15, 2012
Harahan — Jefferson Parish politicians grilled a state engineer Wednesday on exactly what sort of bang residents can now expect for their toll bucks just minutes after a resident again requested that politicians challenge the Crescent City Connection toll vote.
Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development engineer Scott Boyle came to the Jefferson Parish Council meeting to make a presentation on upcoming state projects on the Crescent City Connection and West Bank Expressway that will be paid for with the recently renewed tolls. But parish politicians used that time to press Boyle for definite deadlines for projects that have been promised to West Bank residents for decades.
Councilman Chris Roberts interrupted Boyle’s explanation of planned lighting and signage improvements to demand information on when ramps accessing Manhattan and Barataria Boulevard would be completed, as well as an overhaul of the Harvey Tunnel. Roberts, who supported renewing the tolls, said those are the projects residents care about the most, and it’s imperative that the state deliver on those projects now that funding has been guaranteed. He said that one of those projects, the Peters Road ramp, has $30 million in place.
“People are going to expect that the ramps at Manhattan are constructed. They are going to expect that the ramps at Barataria are constructed. They are going to expect that the Harvey Tunnel, which is deplorable, gets overhauled,” said Roberts, who compared some of the other improvements discussed by Boyle to “lipstick on a pig.”
“What people are expecting is that they get a return for their investment,” he said.
Parish President John Young echoed those questions, noting that parish officials were told that one ramp project would begin in early 2013, although
Boyle said he wasn’t aware of that time line. However, a road project related to those ramp projects has already begun. Young, who opposed the toll renewal, said it’s troubling that the parish is receiving conflicting reports.
“That concerns me a great deal. Now we’re in December of 2012, and you can’t give me an exact date,” said Young, who requested a letter from DOTD Secretary Sherri Lebas on the project’s status. “We need to do a better job of moving these projects forward or this whole thing is going to fall apart.”
Boyle was touting the state’s plans to overhaul the toll plaza, make repairs to one of the bridges, add decorative lighting and replace roughly 1,300 signs. He said the state is planning to spend about $10 million annually on capital projects using new toll revenues.
Existing toll revenues have been dedicated to aid in the privatization of local ferries. Boyle added that the state is considering overhauling its toll collection system and repainting one of the bridges, which would be major projects.
“I do feel confident with the team in place… that we can reach the goals and push forward to bring some of these things to fruition,” Boyle told the council.
Roberts said the state definitely needs to look at a better system for issuing toll tags, such as allowing local governments to sell them. The council also debated the parish’s plans to take over grass cutting on the expressway through a cooperative endeavor agreement with the state.
Young said the parish is ready to take over the work, but the state is balking at a plan to cut the grass 26 times a year instead of 11 times. The state would reimburse the parish for all costs associated with the grass cutting.
“We will take it over, we’re prepared to take it over as long as we’re fully reimbursed,” Young said. “We want to be able to maintain the same quality of cuts that we do throughout the parish … If we’re going to take it over, we’re going to do it the way we do it throughout the parish.”
Roberts said the issue should be “cut and dried,” particularly since the parish is able to get the job done for much less than the state currently pays. However, Councilman Paul Johnston expressed some concern at the parish plan, wondering if the new contractor can maintain the level of service.
The debate came after one resident renewed his request for parish politicians to refuse to accept the toll renewal as valid. Wade Perrin, the president of the Voter’s League of Unincorporated West Jefferson, said politicians should challenge the results and request a recount.
He cited the small margin of victory for the renewal and the mistrust among many residents of the vote. Another local group has already promised a legal challenge, but Perrin called on the parish to take the lead.
“Many people believe the election was fixed,” Perrin said. “Confidence in government is at stake.”