New Orleans — About 1 million Crescent City Connection toll violators escaped tickets because the state lacked the staff and ability to examine every toll camera photo, and more than 206,000 confirmed violators never had to pay, according to the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office.
In an audit released two weeks before voters decide the fate of the CCC’s tolls, the state auditor found that there have been persistent “weaknesses” in the controls over tolls and violation collection by the state Department of Transportation and Development. Although the Crescent City Connection division has been disbanded and tolls suspended pending the outcome of the May 4 election, the audit examines practices for years at the department.
Among the concerns noted were that for years, the state allowed a backlog of more than 1 million photos from toll cameras to accrue, and it failed to ticket drivers with out-of-state license plates because it could not identify the drivers. In addition, even when violators were initially notified, no follow-up was conducted to make certain fines were paid.
Under state law, individuals who fail to pay their violations could be charged late fees and eventually be prevented from renewing their driver’s license or vehicle registration. The audit does not speculate on how much money was lost due to these issues.
The audit also noted that until May 2012, drivers who had toll tags, were not penalized for failing to add money to their accounts because of a glitch in the state’s system that refused to allow accounts to go below 40 cents. That meant that drivers could use the bridge for free. The state corrected that glitch last May.
According to the audit, the state does not have a system in place to request updated credit card information automatically, which creates a delay and inconvenience for customers. Finally, the audit found some issues with how the state classified certain financial transactions, which resulted in the state underreporting its expenditures by about $217,000.
The audit’s findings provide more ammunition for critics of the tolls who have argued for months that the fees are an unfair tax on residents because they are not implemented evenly. Critics have complained that the revenue generated by the tolls, which the audit places at about $21 million annually, has not been spent wisely.
In her response to the audit, DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas concurred with many of the problems identified by the document and said the state has taken steps to correct several of the issues.
LeBas wrote that the glitch that prevented the billing of drivers who failed to add money to their accounts was corrected, and after May 2, 2012, anyone who used the Crescent City Connection with insufficient funds in their account was treated as a violator. She also acknowledged the large backlog of toll camera photos and said the state has hired a private contractor to review those images.
LeBas wrote that while delinquent notices regarding toll violations have not been sent out, the initial notices have been sent, and the Louisiana Attorney General is working on collection of delinquent payments. LeBas added that the problem of collecting from out-of-state drivers is common in many areas, and the state is working out a deal with the states of Mississippi and Texas to handle the problem.
Under that deal, Louisiana would exchange the license plate numbers of violators with toll collection agencies in both states, she said. That exchange would happen periodically, and DOTD employees would then attempt to issue violations to Texas and Mississippi drivers. LeBas wrote that the state is working on similar deals with other states.
LeBas also noted that while the state doesn’t send out automated letters reminding drivers of problems with their toll accounts, drivers are given feedback about their accounts whenever they use the toll bridge.
“The burden to maintain an account in good standing is the responsibility of the GeauxPass holder,” LeBas said.
LeBas said the company that installed the toll readers can provide the ability to send out automated letters, but that would cost about $60,000 to $80,000.
However, many of the changes outlined by LeBas could become unnecessary if voters reject a renewal of the tolls in the upcoming election. The state suspended toll collection when a Baton Rouge judge invalidated the results of the November election. If the renewal is defeated, the state is prepared to move forward with plans to demolish the toll plaza and install a new lane configuration on the approach to the bridge.