Two Jefferson Parish Council members want to hold off on new toll election

After initially saying they would stay out of an upcoming campaign to determine the fate of the Crescent City Connection tolls, Jefferson Parish Council members Chris Roberts and Elton Lagasse jumped into the fray with both feet Tuesday, just as significant lighting changes were announced for the span.

Roberts and Lagasse asked state legislators to call off a special election set for May 6 that would decide whether tolls could be extended for another 20 years. In an email to legislators, the men said they plan to ask their fellow council members to adopt a resolution calling for that action Wednesday.

Lagasse and Roberts asked legislators to allow more time for residents to see if the state Department of Transportation and Development can operate the bridge properly without the roughly $22 million the tolls generate annually.

“We are anxious to see how this works out for everyone,” the email stated. Roberts and Lagasse did not return telephone messages by press time Tuesday.

Just last week, Roberts and Lagasse said they did not plan to be involved in the toll campaign this election cycle after pushing hard for the renewal of the fees in the November election. That renewal was later overturned by a Baton Rouge judge who determined that irregularities in the use of provisional ballots entitled residents to another election. The Louisiana secretary of state did not challenge that ruling.

Lagasse and Roberts said they are ready to allow Parish President John Young and state Rep. Patrick Connick to find a way to get the state to pay for needed improvements to the Harvey Tunnel and ramps at Manhattan Boulevard and Barataria Boulevard without tolls. Both Young and Connick have been vocal opponents of the tolls.

However, Connick labeled the council members’ request “impractical” given the fact that the legislative session starts April 8. He also questioned why they didn’t request that the November election be called off as well. Connick said a judge has already ruled that a new election is needed, and that’s what should happen. It’s up to all of Jefferson Parish politicians to force the DOTD to spend the existing toll reserves on maintaining the bridge and not on other items, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s up to the judge to make that call, and the judge already called for a special election,” Connick said. “We are where we are.”

In an added twist, around the same time that Lagasse and Roberts were making their request, the Regional Planning Commission was deciding to end decorative lighting on the bridge but tap toll reserves to maintain other services. That decision came after the state Department of Transportation and Development said it could not afford to maintain that service, and several others, without the toll revenue.

During the November election, the state said it would have to reduce grass cutting and litter collection on the bridge and West Bank Expressway without the tolls and eliminate some lighting and landscaping. The commission decided to maintain some services at a reduced level, but not the decorative ligthing. Standard lighting will not be impacted.

G. Patrick Hand III, a lawyer who pushed for the nullification of the November election, said the state’s complaints and the council members’ emails seem designed to make certain that the scary outcomes predicted prior to the initial election materialize. Hand said that the dire predictions of horrific traffic on the Crescent City Connection have proven false, and residents are enjoying not having to pay an “unfair tax” to cross the bridge.

Hand claimed that if an election is held in May, the tolls will be defeated handily, so opponents are stalling with the hope that conditions on the bridge will worsen and sway voters. He noted that given how much money was collected for years from the tolls, there should be enough money to maintain all of the normal services for a long time.

“They need to stop all their political maneuvering and represent the people they were hired to represent,” Hand said. “I don’t know if that’s something the state should provide, but I do know they have $15 million in the bank. They can pay for lighting.”

State Rep. Jeff Arnold, of Algiers, didn’t take a public position on the tolls but privately supported their renewal. He said he wouldn’t mind seeing an election delayed because it would give voters a chance to see what the tolls provide them. It also would allow for a higher turnout. However, Arnold agreed with Connick that getting a bill passed to stop the election in less than a month isn’t possible.

“I don’t know that logistically their request could even be carried out,” Arnold said.

He did say that the precedent set by the judge’s decision is one that could have far-reaching impact. If plaintiffs can challenge elections because of problems with provisional ballots, how much more money will the state have to spend on each election? Arnold asked.