Decorative lights to shine on Crescent City Connection again

The Crescent City Connection’s iconic decorative lighting soon will dominate New Orleans’ skyline again after the Regional Planning Commission agreed to allow a local nonprofit to pay for the feature until June.

Commission members overwhelmingly supported a proposal that will allow the Young Leadership Council of New Orleans to spend about $3,000 to turn the lights on immediately and also agreed to spend toll reserves to pay for the lights until June 2014.

The nonprofit offered to pay for the lights several days ago but needed an official agreement with the RPC to move forward. Department of Transportation and Development officials said the lights could be back on as early as Tuesday.

The DOTD turned off the lights earlier this month after an East Baton Rouge Parish judge called for a new referendum on the extension of tolls. Commission members previously authorized paying for standard lighting on the bridge with toll reserves but balked at the decorative lighting.

The RPC’s decision came despite several members’ opposition to the idea of using one-time funds to keep the lights on. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the solution a “short-term fix” in a letter to the commission opposing the resolution introduced by Jefferson Parish President John Young.

Landrieu argued that it’s the state’s job to pay for all services on the bridge such as lighting, landscaping, street sweeping and maintenance. He doesn’t support any plan that seeks to shift that responsibility to local authorities.

Landrieu, who supported the renewal of the tolls that previously funded those services, said everyone should share that position.

“Regardless of your position on the tolls, we can all agree that providing basic services for the Crescent City Connection is a state obligation,” Landrieu wrote.

Young said he agrees with Landrieu’s sentiment, although his office’s research says it isn’t clear that the state is responsible for paying for lighting. Young opposed the renewal of the tolls but also has stressed that it’s the state’s responsibility to care for the CCC and the West Bank Expressway, even without the extra $22 million in revenue the tolls provided.

Young, along with New Orleans Councilwoman Stacy Head, pushed the RPC to accept the donation, while also pushing the state to pay for the lights per its initial agreement. The resolution would have the toll reserves pay for lighting until June 2014.

“For the most part I agree with the mayor of the city of New Orleans,” said Young, who added that other private entities are interested in making donations to keep the lights on. “I differ on his decision not to move forward at this time.”

New Orleans City Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson pushed the idea that the lights are not “decorative” but rather necessary for safety on the bridge. She disagreed with Young’s plan because she said it’s not “good government.”

Clarkson argued that officials should allow the lights to go out so the residents will put more pressure on legislators to get the law changed that bars DOTD from paying for lighting.

“Let the people be mad, and we will get this passed,” Clarkson said.

Rhett Desselle, DOTD’s assistant secretary of operations, said that if the law is changed, DOTD will change its position. He noted that although the initial donation of the lights mandated that the state pay for them, those original lights were replaced in 2006. Desselle argued that made the agreement void.

“The system that was the subject of the act of donation no longer exists,” Desselle said.

He did note that based on past costs, the lights could be maintained for a decade using some capital project funds that are available.

Electricity bills for the decorative lights are about $16,000 to $17,000 annually, while maintenance costs have ranged from $6,000 to $34,000 annually.

Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts again pushed for more information on how the state plans to address capital projects that were previously tied to tolls. Roberts said there needs to be a plan for the bridge and West Bank Expressway once the $5 million in toll reserves is exhausted. He also wants to put pressure on the state.

“What is the plan for when this money is exhausted?” Roberts asked. “We also would expect that the Legislature and the state come up with a long-term solution to the problem.”

Along those lines, Roberts persuaded the commission to pass a resolution asking the Legislature to require the state to pay for lighting on all state roads. Although there were some concerns raised about the viability of that request, Roberts said asking for a special exemption simply for the Crescent City Connection was even less likely to pass.

“That bill would be dead on arrival,” Roberts said.