State officials said Thursday they plan to open a cash lane next year to help increase revenue over a troubled, $161 million toll bridge in far south Louisiana.
The bridge is on La. 1 in Leeville, which is just west of Grand Isle, and crosses over Bayou Lafourche.
It is part of a project to improve traffic flow on a flood-prone corridor used to haul nearly 20 percent of the nation’s crude oil and natural gas supplies.
But the bridge has been plagued by problems since fees started being collected two years ago, including the lack of any cash lanes in favor of an electronic system.
Rhett Desselle, assistant secretary for operations for the state Department of Transportation and Development, told a state panel that a cash lane is needed in part because the toll bridge is unlike most around the country.
Desselle said toll bridges generally collect from regular commuters, who also have the option of using other routes.
In this case, he said, traffic on the bridge varies, including a heavy dose of 18-wheelers from outside Louisiana, and the bridge offers the only way in and out of Port Fourchon and other sites.
The bridge now features open-road tolling, which means there is no collection station.
Tolls are generally collected electronically with overhead equipment that reads a transponder on the car or truck.
Motorists without the electronic tags must stop and leave their vehicle to pay at kiosks.
Desselle said the state hopes to open a cash lane by next spring or summer, depending on whether additional road work is needed to set up a machine that will accept coins, debit or credit cards.
The bridge generated $3.4 million in toll revenue in 2010, which was $674,000 less than what was required to meet state borrowing obligations.
Most car drivers who use the bridge pay $2.50 per round trip.
The top charge is $12 for big trucks.
Tolls were initially set to go up in 2013 but that increase may take place in 2012 instead.
About 8,000-10,000 cars and trucks use the bridge daily.
Issues surrounding the bridge were discussed by the Louisiana Transportation Authority, which helps decide the financing on major projects.
Last year, state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said the toll-collection system was riddled with problems.
The installation and other work to set up cash lanes will not cost the state.
It is part of a legal settlement between DOTD and Electronic Transaction Consultants Corp., which set up the toll collection system.
That agreement, which was reached on June 30, ended lawsuits filed by both sides after ETC quit working on the project in early 2010.
Under last month’s settlement, ETC will again provide maintenance for the revamped toll-collection system.
“What gives you the confidence these folks are not going to walk off again?” asked state Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City and a member of the authority.
Kirk Bergeron, a DOTD attorney, said the firm now has financial incentives to finish the work agreed on.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Joe McPherson, D-Woodworth and chairman of the panel, said the bridge has suffered from less than expected traffic and problems collecting tolls from motorists who do use it.
“This is pretty serious stuff,” McPherson said. “We have made some missteps.”