Jefferson Parish — Months of campaigning and legal wrangling have finally come to a head, and now voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes must decide, again, whether the Crescent City Connection bridge tolls should be renewed.
The election that toll opponents fought so hard to obtain for is set for May 4, and early voting has already begun. Voters must decide whether to grant a 20-year extension to the fees, which have been called an “unfair tax” by some and a vital source of revenue by others.
When voters initially voted on the toll renewal in November, the topic dominated media reports and discussions thanks to dueling news conferences from both sides. This election cycle comes after Stop the Tolls LLC persuaded a Baton Rouge judge to overturn the election based on voting irregularities and concerns, and it has been much more low-key.
While Michael Teachworth, leader of Stop the Tolls, has been making speeches at public meetings throughout the three-parish area, those who favor the fees have been virtually silent.
Todd Murphy, president of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, said it’s obvious that public opinion has shifted on the issue of the tolls; although he stopped short of saying the outcome of the upcoming election is already settled. Murphy’s group was one of many business groups that joined several local politicians in pushing for the renewal initially but that has been largely silent this time around.
“I think the whole dynamic of the election has certainly changed,” said Murphy, who expects that even the divisive toll issue won’t be able to prevent a low turnout on a Jazz Fest weekend. “Obviously the people that are most motivated in that type of scenario are the people who are opposed.”
But, like many toll supporters, Murphy claims that overturning the fees will only be the first step. Jefferson Parish will still need to determine how to pay for improvements to the Crescent City Connection and the West Bank Expressway, he said.
Local politicians have been chewing on that issue for months, and plan for now to use reserves built up from the tolls to maintain certain services. However, long-term improvements, like new ramps and bridge painting, are currently unfunded.
“We hope that there’s some way to find some solutions to the infrastructure problems on the West Bank” said Murphy, adding that he doesn’t’ have much faith in the state’s desire to move Jefferson Parish projects to the top of the priority list. “I don’t have a whole lot of hope that they’re going to keep this bridge and the 14 miles of roadway in above-average condition.”
But State Rep. Patrick Connick, who has been one of the tolls’ staunchest critics, said that it’s up to Jefferson Parish’s legislative delegation to push for a fair share of state dollars, not to ask local residents to pay an extra tax.
Connick notes that though the tolls bring in about $20 million to $22 million annually, that money often was spent in other parts of the state.
“We just continue to find that (the Department of Transportation and Development) used our dollars on projects across the state,” Connick said. “Instead of us getting the benefit, they sent it to places around the state.”
That has been a recurring argument throughout the toll debate. Opponents of the fee say waste and mismanagement have been intertwined with toll collection, while long-promised improvements have languished.
Connick said massive highway projects in Baton Rouge and Metairie were completed without toll dollars, yet residents of the West Bank, who generate a large portion of toll revenues, are being told they can’t get work done without tolls.
Connick said he doesn’t believe that’s true.
“The DOTD has not been truthful,” he said. “It just goes on and on… I think the DOTD lacks the vision and the ability to spend these toll dollars right.”
“DOTD has nobody to blame but themselves for the tolls going away.”