Gretna — An apparent dearth of dragons to slay hasn’t stopped Crescent City Connection toll opponents from gearing up for serious battle in Saturday’s election, as they seek to eliminate the long-standing tolls permanently.
Toll critics gathered Thursday to rally their forces one final time before beginning volunteer-driven canvassing to encourage opposition to the fees. The event, which featured speeches from Jefferson Parish President John Young, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and State Treasurer John Kennedy, was high-spirited despite the fact that toll supporters have been largely silent over the past two months.
Nungesser told the small crowd that although toll supporters haven’t been publicly campaigning for the fees, they have been quietly fear-mongering in the background. He said he recently ran into a cab driver in New Orleans who was convinced that failing to renew the tolls would result in a property tax increase for him. Nungesser said that he’s so certain that isn’t true, he’s willing to pay anyone’s tax bill if it rises because the tolls are rejected.
“Don’t let up now,” Nungesser exhorted toll opponents.
Voters are slated to decide Saturday whether to renew tolls on the bridge for another 20 years. The fees generate about $20 to $22 million annually, and toll opponents estimate that bridge users have saved about $3.75 million in the 60 days the bridge has been without the fees. The state Department of Transportation and Development suspended the tolls in March after a Baton Rouge judge ruled that November’s election extending the fees was handled improperly. That election was decided by only 36 votes out of more than 300,000 cast.
November’s election was marked by dueling news conference and heavy rhetoric, but this election cycle has been much quieter. Some former toll supporters, like Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Lonnie Greco and Westwego politicians John Shaddinger and Ted Munch have switched sides, while even those who support the renewal have decided it’s not worth fighting over publicly.
However, while Nungesser railed against quiet smear campaigns, Young and Kennedy said that even the public claims of toll supporters no longer pass muster. Kennedy said he often hears that people are worried that without the toll money the Crescent City Connection will cease operations and collapse. However, Kennedy said that given the waste and abuse that dominated the use of earlier toll revenues, the bridge has been doing fine without any extra cash for a long time.
“It’s going everywhere but to the bridge,” Kennedy said. “Government has no right to a revenue stream it abuses.”
Waste, abuse and unfairness also were the themes Young hit upon in his remarks, again noting that Jefferson Parish is the only parish in the state that has three different toll bridges impacting its residents.
Young said he’s opposed the tolls from the beginning because he doesn’t believe it’s fair that the parish’s residents must pay for what others get for free. He also said that the state has never been willing to correctly spend the millions it collected from the tolls.
“The trust is gone,” Young said.
Toll opponents also used the news conference to offer testimonials on how the absence of the fees has provided a boost to West Bank businesses and families. Elizabeth Strohmeyer, a real estate agent, estimated that her business has picked up 30 percent since the tolls stopped. Fonnie Galmiche said it’s become much easier to move around with her home-schooled child and invite others to the West Bank.
Shannon Ockman said she’s had three customers come into her sports shop on Terry Parkway because they say the lack of tolls made them more wiling to come to the West Bank.
The fees, and traffic they helped cause, created a psychological and physical barrier that’s only recently started to come down, she said.
“Since the tolls have ceased I’ve had way more visitors that were from out-of-town or the Warehouse District, she said.
G. Patrick Hand III, the attorney who helped secure the new election, said the goal all along was to give the people a chance to speak. That’s happened this time, he said.
“There were sleepless nights, there were countless hours,” Hand said. “It’s unfair, it’s unnecessary and it’s got to stop.”