New Orleans — The barrage of news conferences featuring high-profile local politicians supporting the renewal of the Crescent City Connection tolls continued Friday, and this time it was law enforcement officials urging residents to support the fees.
Held at the same spot where New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other government leaders gathered to support the tolls on Thursday, the event featured speeches by the sheriffs from Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes, along with New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas. The men urged residents to consider three major themes when deciding how to vote on the tolls: safety, security and progress. Bridging Progress, a political action committee created to muster support for the tolls, sponsored the conference as part of its ongoing media campaign.
Voters in New Orleans, Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Parish will decide Tuesday whether to renew the tolls or allow them to expire in December. Drivers pay $1 or 40 cents with a toll tag to cross the bridge to New Orleans. The tolls generate about $21 million to $22 million annually.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand was adamant that residents who focus on the excesses of the past when deciding the fate of the tolls are being short-sighted. While he acknowledged that the nearly $400 million the state has collected from tolls was sometimes spent recklessly, Normand said eliminating the fee would mean punishing the region for the actions of others.
Toll opponents, which now include nearly 200 West Bank businesses, have argued that the Crescent City Connection Division has been a wellspring of broken promises and financial mismanagement. Not only has toll money been spent on projects that it was never intended to finance, like ferries, but many of the projects that it was supposed to fund were never finished.
Opponents also have questioned whether the region really received enhanced service on the bridge and expressway.
But, Normand echoed a point made by Landrieu and by business leaders who have supported the toll renewal.
He said that with the Regional Planning Commission gaining oversight over the toll revenues, residents can feel confident that their money will be spent wisely.
The planning commission is composed of people who have a vested interest in seeing the metropolitan region thrive, unlike politicians from other parts of the state who were unconcerned with whether the toll revenue benefited local communities, Normand said.
“We believe that it is very important that we are in control of the destiny of this region,” Normand said.
“We are the ones collectively who will have to suffer all of the ills of those bad decisions.”
One of the themes of law enforcement officials was that eliminating the tolls would make residents less safe by diverting their departments from important police work to handling traffic problems on the 13 miles of roadway that would be patrolled by the Louisiana State Police.
Although officials were careful to praise State Police, they said the agency is dealing with the same tight budgets as every other governmental agency, and it’s unlikely that policing the Crescent City Connection would be a top priority.
Serpas said his officers might have to leave their patrols within the city to handle traffic incidents, another strain on an agency that is already stretched to the limit, according to recent media reports on staffing numbers.
The bridge and West Bank Expressway are vital to the region, and they need their own fully-staffed and funded police agency, he said.
“The Crescent City Connection bridge connects the Crescent City,” Serpas said.
There were also concerns that the cessation of toll revenues would mean lighting beneath the expressway would be eliminated.
On the West Bank, a series of bicycle and walking trails run beneath the expressway.
Without lighting they could become unsafe and possibly home to vagrants, said Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Lonnie Greco.
Greco even introduced the idea of a national security threat from the lack of lighting.
Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson and Normand have both said they don’t have the manpower to handle increased patrols beneath the expressway.
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman said ending the tolls would be a step backwards for the region. Gusman grew up on the West Bank, and he said the previous cessation of tolls led to poor maintenance and few improvements to the bridge.
He would hate to see the span return to those times.
“We can do better, we can do a lot better. Having this toll is going to get us there quicker,” Gusman said.
The latest, and supposedly last, news conference, was attended by a bevy of Jefferson Parish politicians including five of the seven Parish Council members, police chiefs from Kenner, Gretna, Harahan and Jean Lafitte, and the mayors of Jean Lafitte and Westwego.
Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng and Councilman Mark Spears were absent, as was Parish President John Young who has publicly opposed the toll renewal.
Although Westwego and Jean Lafitte aren’t hotbeds of debate over the tolls, the issue is still important to those areas.
Maintaining the West Bank Expressway has to be done by someone, and if the state doesn’t do an adequate job, smaller cities will have to step up.
That would be a drain on a city with a tight budget like Westwego’s. Kerner said his city is hoping to increase its tourism profile, and a poorly maintained gateway to the West Bank is a drawback.
“The fight shouldn’t be over whether or not we pay the toll, but what we spend (the money) on,” Kerner said.