Tags eyed to raise revenue from tolls

Although the fate of the Crescent City Connection tolls is still uncertain, state transportation officials recently unveiled a new proposal to make toll tags free as part of an ongoing overhaul of bridge operations.

A preliminary plan to scrap fees for toll tags in an effort to increase their usage was discussed Wednesday at the Jefferson Parish Council meeting. Although implementation of the plan likely would require action by the state Legislature, the Department of Transportation and Development sees the change as crucial to increasing efficiency.

Rhett Desselle, the DOTD’s assistant secretary of operations, mentioned the change as part of a status report to the council on the bridge and West Bank Expressway.

Desselle said it costs the state 11 cents to collect a 40-cent toll tag payment and 77 cents to collect a $1 cash payment. Roughly 54 percent of bridge users use toll tags, the vast majority of whom live on the West Bank, but the state would like to see that number increase to about 70 percent, Desselle said.

DOTD also wants to allow toll tags to work on both the CCC and the Causeway and is considering reciprocal agreements with tolling bodies in Texas and Oklahoma.

The state already is planning to reduce its available cash lanes.

“This means more net revenue,” Desselle said.

The ultimate fate of the tolls is still undecided, pending a recount of absentee ballots and early voting ballots cast in the November election. A West Bank group opposed to the toll renewal challenged the election results, and a recount is set for Feb. 16.

Desselle said the main obstacle to giving away toll tags is a Louisiana law that prohibits public bodies from donating items of value.

While Desselle said the cost of the toll tag is recouped after the first few uses, it still counts as value.

The state is seeking a legal opinion on whether toll tags might be exempt from the provision, or officials may have to seek an exemption from the Legislature, Desselle said.

The extra revenue would help increase the number of capital projects completed by the state and allow an expansion of operations. Desselle said the first $10 million of the roughly $22 million collected annually from the tolls is dedicated to capital projects.

Desselle noted that the state has begun work associated with the construction of a new exit ramp at Peters Road and bids for the ramp are expected to be solicited by 2014. Desselle also mentioned $7 million set aside for improvements to the Harvey Tunnel.

Council Chairman Chris Roberts, who has urged the state to move quickly on major capital projects used to justify the toll renewal, also asked Desselle to consider issues with striping on the Pontchartrain Expressway last year that seem to have exacerbated existing gridlock for eastbound traffic on the bridge. Roberts said several residents have complained to him, and it seems like the state made the changes to accommodate downtown drivers at the expense of West Bank commuters.

“The people that are footing the bill for the bridge are the ones that are being inconvenienced by that,” Roberts said. “That’s been a very hard sell for most commuters.”

District Administrator Michael Stack said the state is studying traffic flow on the Pontchartrain Expressway and bridge and trying to determine if the striping has made things worse. However, initial indications are that there is just not enough space for the roughly 1,800 vehicles that travel each lane of the bridge every hour during rush hour, he said.

“As long as everything balances perfectly, we’re OK,” Stack said.

Desselle also told the council that a cooperative endeavor agreement that would allow the parish to take over grass-cutting, landscaping and litter collection on the bridge and expressway could be completed this week. That contract is valued at roughly $461,000 to $481,000, he said.

One sticking point for the agreement was the number of times grass would be cut annually, but the parish and state have reached an agreement on 26 cuts per year.