It was all so simple at the beginning.
There was a basket that looked like the webbed portion of a hockey goalie’s glove. Well, maybe that’s not a recognizable simile now that most of Louisiana’s minor-league hockey teams have fled. How about, half of a crab trap?
You would drive up to the machine, pitch your quarter into the net-like contraption attached to it and watch it bounce down into a little opening, where it was captured and validated as legal U.S. tender. Then you were clear to drive onto what was then called the Greater New Orleans Bridge. Also, back then, in the beginning, people traveling from the east bank would have to stop at the toll plaza in Algiers to pay for the trip across the river they’d just taken.
The tolls were taken off the GNO bridge by Gov. John McKeithen, but they returned in 1989 to pay for the construction of a parallel span. The quarter-gobbling machines didn’t return with the tolls, but the agency that ran the two bridges brought in something better, toll tags.
A lot has changed since then. The bridge complex was renamed the Crescent City Connection in a contest sponsored by a newspaper. However, the Crescent City Connection Authority that oversaw bridge operations for decades was abolished last year, and the whole thing is being run directly by the state Department of Transportation and Development now. The CCC’s police force has been replaced by Department of Public Safety officers, augmented by Louisiana State Police.
Several lanes entering the CCC are toll-tag only lanes. Anybody who has a tag can tell you those lanes are usually clear while the cash lanes are backed up, except in those all-too-often occasions when an idiot without a toll tag winds up in a tag-only lane and holds up everything trying to get out of it.
Impressed with how efficient toll tags can be, DOTD wants to encourage their use. The agency may give the tags away instead of requiring a deposit and is considering more tag-only lanes, which means fewer cash lanes.
Rhett Desselle, DOTD’s assistant secretary of operations, recently told the Jefferson Parish Council that it costs 11 cents to collect a toll-tag payment, but 77 cents of every dollar collected by a human. Granted, toll-tag users get a discount and pay only 40 cents per trip. However, that still means costs are only 27.5 percent for toll-tag collections, while manually collecting the full dollar incurs 77 percent in costs.
Increasing the use of toll tags, then, would seem to be a no-brainer.
There is, however, the chance that the whole toll issue will be moot soon. That certainly is the dream of most West Bank motorists, who voted Nov. 6 against extending tolls for another 20 years. However, east bank voters took part in that referendum, too, and the toll extension passed by an 18-vote margin out of nearly 309,000 cast in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes.
Toll opponents sued for a recount, which they are going to get on Saturday, but only Orleans Parish absentee ballots and early votes cast before the election will be looked at again.
Opponents of the tolls are hoping there were just enough errors in the original count that they can overtake that 18-vote lead. If that happens, West Bank motorists’ long commuting nightmare, which dates back to when the GNO Bridge opened in the late 1950s, will finally be over.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.