Toll bridge criticized in audit

A bridge in far south Louisiana is failing to generate enough toll revenue to pay for the structure, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said.

“I think it is obvious from the payment schedule of bonds that there will have to be additional funds appropriated by the Legislature through DOTD,” Purpera said, a reference to the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The $365 million bridge, on La. 1 in Leeville, crosses Bayou Lafourche and is just west of Grand Isle.

It is the route used to haul about 20 percent of the nation’s crude oil and natural gas supplies.

The 3-year-old bridge has been embroiled in controversy for years and was the target of criticism in an audit released by Purpera on Monday, the second such critical report in recent years.

The review said toll revenue generated $3.3 million for the financial year that ended June 30, roughly what the state owes next year to help retire bonds used to finance the bridge.

However, those borrowing costs are set to rise to $8.4 million, $7 million and $7.3 million for the following three years, according to the audit.

Starting in 2018, the report says, the state will owe an average of $10.3 million per year in borrowing costs, figures in the audit show.

Toll revenue has long been cited as the way state officials said they planned to repay most of the costs to build the structure.

Asked if DOTD officials wanted to comment, communications director Jodi Conachen issued a prepared statement late Friday that said the agency “has developed a long-term plan for the debt on La. 1.”

One of the options, Conachen said, is for the state to refinance the debt, which is among several steps recommended by a national toll consultant enlisted by the state last year.

The nine-member Louisiana Transportation Authority, which governs the bridge, is set to discuss the issue Dec. 21.

The bridge replaced one that was finished in 1969, which used to sit in 40 feet of water because of Louisiana’s disappearing coastline instead of the 10-foot depth the lift bridge was built for.

The bridge serves traffic to and from Port Fourchon, which provides a wide array of equipment and other support for offshore oil and gas drilling production; hundreds of oil platforms are located within 40 miles of Port Fourchon and the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, which serves as an unloading and distribution point for oil supertankers entering the Gulf.

About 8,000 to 10,000 cars and trucks use the bridge daily. Most car drivers who use it pay $2.50 per round trip. The top charge for big trucks is $12.

State Rep. Jerry Gisclair, D-Larose, whose legislative district includes the bridge, said he expects tolls for cars to rise to more than $3 soon and much higher for big trucks.

“Now with the escalating costs people are looking at me and saying ‘Wait a minute,’ ” Gisclair said.

He added, “It is going to be a shock. I know they have to go up on the rates. I don’t know why we are having to pay for a flawed system.”

Gisclair said that, while large firms often reimburse drivers who make repeated trips across the bridge, welders and others who make several round trips a day have to absorb the expense. “Those are the guys that really complain to me,” he said.

Purpera’s latest audit said state transportation officials allowed up to 300,000 cars and trucks to use the bridge without operators paying.

It also said officials failed to send delinquency notices for 39,700 toll violations as required by state law.

DOTD officials said they are working on ways to check the 300,000 violations and that the toll system is now capturing 95 percent of bridge traffic.

Earlier problems include a wide range of trouble with the toll collection system; higher than expected construction costs; less traffic than predicted and controversy over who should qualify for discount rates.

However, Roads and Bridges Magazine listed the bridge as No. 6 on its list of top 10 bridges in the U.S. for 2012, DOTD officials said Friday.