Toll election decision raises questions about grass, lighting

Although the future of the Crescent City Connection’s tolls is in limbo until May, the fight over how existing stockpiled toll revenue should be spent is still a hot button issue.

The state Department of Transportation and Development is scheduled to discuss what type of grass cutting, landscaping and lighting services it can provide on the bridge and West Bank Expressway now that toll collection has been suspended pending the outcome of the May 4 election at a Regional Planning Commission meeting next week.

Those services were a key issue in the November election with toll proponents arguing that going to the standard state schedule would quickly turn the bridge and expressway into eyesores.

Walter Brooks, the RPC’s executive director, told commission members that he expects the state to report that it cannot afford to maintain the “enhanced” level of service the bridge and expressway receive without the toll revenue.

Prior discussions included plans to cut the grass on the structures about eight times per year, eliminate landscaping, reduce trash collection and eliminate some lights.

Brooks said the RPC will need to determine if the state can tap into the stockpiled toll revenues of between $10 million and $15 million to pay for “enhanced service.”

“RPC will need to consider and decide if any of the Transition Funds will be used to provide added services and what these services will be and to what level,” Brooks wrote in an email.

State Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, said the toll reserves should already be dedicated to those purposes, and any attempts to link the continuation of those services to new toll revenue is erroneous.

Connick, who has been one of the main opponents of extending toll collection, said the reserves should be able to pay for enhanced services for more than a decade.

Those funds should be used immediately, not held in abeyance until after the election.

“It is flat wrong for DOTD officials to hold these funds hostage prior to the May 4 election,” Connick argued. Those funds also pay for the continued operation of several local ferries.

DOTD was set to turn over grass cutting and landscaping to Jefferson Parish in a deal where the parish would be reimbursed for about 26 cuts per year. However, the state balked at the deal once the continuation of toll revenue became uncertain, said Parish President John Young.

Young added that the parish deserves the enhanced services but will not foot the bill for work that it’s the state’s job to complete.

“This is the state’s responsibility,” Young said.

The possibility of unkempt grass and darkened roadways could be a powerful weapon in the upcoming election, where voters will decide whether to extend the tolls for another 20 years.

In the November campaign, opponents called the warnings of dire changes in service “scare tactics,” while proponents said they were the likely outcome given the state’s fiscal plight.

The Planning Commission is schedule to meet at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.