Lawmaker pushes  to reimpose tolls  on Sunshine Bridge

Residents in Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, as well as plant workers along the Mississippi River industrial corridor, could be shelling out for a new toll to cross the Sunshine Bridge.

State Sen. Troy Brown, D-Napoleonville, has been meeting with officials in the parishes to tout his plan to draft legislation during the upcoming legislative session to bring back tolls on the bridge, which connects Donaldsonville with east Ascension Parish and is one of two that link the east and west banks of St. James Parish.

The Sunshine Bridge, which opened in 1965 at a cost of $40 million, has a long history with tolls. They were collected from its inception until they were suspended in 1979, but were brought back in 1989 by a state law requiring tolls on the bridge if tolls were collected on the Crescent City Connection in New Orleans. The tolls were suspended again in 2001 after the bridge’s debt was paid off in 1999.

Known as the Sunshine Bridge because of its connection with former Gov. Jimmie Davis, it originally was denounced as a bridge to nowhere, connecting one cornfield with another. During its first year, the bridge’s toll-takers collected 60 cents for each of the more than 2,000 vehicles per day that crossed the span.

Through the years, traffic increased and the tolls charged to drivers fluctuated between 50 cents and $1 for cars and trucks, and as much as $2.50 for 18-wheelers. At its height, the state was collecting an average of $2 million per year from the Sunshine Bridge tolls, though that dipped to about $1 million in the final year.

Brown said he believes that today, by returning to collecting a toll on traffic using the span, Sunshine Bridge could bring in twice as much as it did in the 1990s.

As the oil and gas industry has expanded along the Mississippi River in Ascension and St. James parishes, the bridge is now used by an estimated 20,000-plus vehicles every day, Brown said, citing statistics from the state Department of Transportation and Development.

Brown told St. James officials earlier this week during a Parish Council meeting that a 50-cent toll each way would generate approximately $11,000 per day — or just over $4 million per year. The senator said he is working on a plan to split the revenue equally among the state and Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes.

Although Brown said he could pre-file a bill by the end of the month prior to the April 8 start of the 2013 session of the state Legislature, he also said the decision on whether to impose a toll ultimately would be made by voters in the three parishes.

Voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes will take to the polls in May to cast ballots on whether or not to reinstate the tolls on the Crescent City Connection, which were suspended earlier this week after a Baton Rouge judge threw out the results of a November election to continue the tolls for another 20 years. The toll imposed to pay off the cost of the bridge had been collected for the past 24 years, bringing in roughly $22 million annually.

Whether Brown can gain support from parish and municipal officials in the River Parishes region served by the Sunshine Bridge remains to be seen.

Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez and St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel both said they wanted to know more about the idea and also need more answers from Brown before deciding whether or not to support his proposal.

“It depends what the money is used for,” said Martinez, adding he has had some preliminary discussions with Brown about tolls on the Sunshine Bridge. “… I’d have to see how that money would be divided and what it would be used for.”

Roussel added, “I still have some concerns.”

Some of his questions, Roussel said, included: who would vote on the tolls, how the money would be distributed and if the Legislature could actually reinstate the tolls, as it has done in the past.

“The majority of the people in St. James Parish” use the Sunshine Bridge, Roussel said, so imposing tolls on the bridge would be a major concern to his constituents. He did say that Brown told parish officials that his plan did not include adding tolls on the Veterans Memorial Bridge in Gramercy.

Martinez and Roussel said they both would likely support tolls on the Sunshine Bridge if a portion — or majority — of the money went to help fund a “Westbank Expressway,” or “Westbank Connector” project that would connect Interstate 10 in West Baton Rouge Parish with Interstate 310 in St. Charles Parish.

The $1.656 billion project, being overseen by the Baton Rouge design firm SJB Group, would include several elements:

Four-lane and improve La. 3127 from I-310 to La. 70 near Donaldsonville.

Improve La. 70 near Donaldsonville from La. 3127 to La. 3125.

Upgrade the existing La. 1 from west of Donaldsonville to south of Plaquemine.

Create a new route from La. 1 south of Plaquemine to I-10 west of Port Allen.

Build a new route from La. 3125 to I-10.

Create new connectors at La. 1 and La. 30 for a new Mississippi River bridge in Iberville Parish, just south of Bluebonnet Boulevard in Baton Rouge.

The project is designed to allow a driver to bypass Baton Rouge on the west side of the river, traveling from Port Allen directly to New Orleans or re-entering onto I-10 south of Gonzales. In addition, the Interstate 10 bridge over the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge would allow West Baton Rouge Parish residents quick access to LSU and south Baton Rouge.

“I think that would be an ideal plan,” Roussel said.

“The westbank expressway, I think, is very important,” Martinez added.

Without assurances of a definite plan from Brown, though, the parish presidents said they would be reluctant to support the reinstatement of tolls.

“Just to put a toll on the bridge to put a toll on the bridge” is not the right thing, Martinez said.

“Three of the council members at the meeting did have some questions,” Roussel said. “I don’t know if the answers they got were suitable enough. They’re definitely not going to jump out and support this thing right out. We need some more information before there’s going to be any action from St. James Parish.”

Advocate correspondent Kate Stevens contributed to this report.