Crescent City Connection toll renewal shot down by voters

The long fight over tolls on the Crescent City Connection is finally over, and opponents of the fees secured a decisive victory based on unofficial results published on the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website on Saturday night.

Voters in New Orleans, Plaquemines Parish and Jefferson Parish overwhemingly supported eliminating the tolls, with 78 percent of voters rejecting the renewal. However, overall voter turnout was less than a third of the 308,800 voters that participated in the November election.

John Roberts, a member of Stop the Tolls LLC, said Saturday’s result felt like “true justice” for toll opponents who crusaded aggressively against the fees, and refused to concede victory after an apparent loss last year. Roberts said members of the group always knew the tolls were unfair and that it feels good to finally set the record straight.

“We really have to say it’s vindication. We really believed in the cause, and that’s why we had the volunteers that we had,” Roberts said from a victory party in Gretna.

He added that while some volunteers may no longer be interested in the Crescent City Connection, there is a core group that will remain active to be certain the West Bank isn’t shortchanged on the money it deserves from the state to maintain the span. They will keep a close eye on how politicians respond to the end of the fees, he said.

The election represented the culmination of months of debate, investigations and legal battles over the renewal of the tolls on the iconic span. Although the Crescent City Connection bridge is paid for, the tolls would have been extended for another 20 years to pay for maintenance and capital improvements.

The fees, which are $1 for those using cash and 40 cents for those with toll tags, generate between $20 million and $22 million per year.

Saturday’s election was only possible because toll opponents secured a legal victory in March that invalidated the results of the November election when the tolls were renewed by a mere 36 votes. Baton Rouge Judge William Morvant granted the new election after toll opponents proved that many voters were not allowed to vote on the initial proposition because of the use of provisional ballots.

The toll battle was characterized by an extremely lively debate in advance of the November election but far less discussion before Saturday. Proponents of renewing the tolls have argued that the money generated by the fees helped keep the Crescent City Connection bridge one of the best maintained spans in Louisiana. The money also paid for grass cutting, litter control and lighting along the bridge and the West Bank Expressway.

Proponents questioned whether the lack of a revenue stream would put an undue strain on local governments and police agencies. This week, Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts complained that response times for traffic accidents has increased greatly on the expressway, which is leading to more traffic problems.

However, those arguments were made much less vehemently during the past 60 days, and some politicians who initially supported the tolls actually flip-flopped prior to Saturday’s vote.

Toll opponents have consistently argued that the revenue from the tolls has been misused and that the tolls represented an unfair tax on local residents, particularly those on the West Bank.

At a recent press conference, they noted that money from the tolls has been spent on projects all over Louisiana but little has been spent on the West Bank. In addition, they claimed that drivers have saved roughly $3.6 million since the tolls were removed, money that’s now back in circulation.