Harahan — With no discussion, the Jefferson Parish Council moved forward Wednesday with a plan to ask the parish’s legislative delegation to stop May’s election on the Crescent City Connection tolls.
The resolution was presented by Councilmen Elton Lagasse and Chris Roberts and was approved unanimously by the board. Roberts and Lagasse announced their desire to avoid May’s election on Tuesday in an open letter to state legislators.
The fairly anticlimatic vote came after the council listened to a presentation from a Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development official on how the loss of toll revenue will affect the bridge and Jefferson Parish. A vote on the extension of the tolls is scheduled for May 4.
Rhett Desselle, the DOTD’s assistant secretary of operations, painted a bleak picture for the bridge, West Bank Expressway and ferries now that toll revenues are gone. Much of his presentation reiterated talking points that came up during the November election about the state’s inability or unwillingness to pay for certain services at their previous levels, or at all.
Although the Regional Planning Commission recently agreed to use leftover toll revenue to pay for “enhanced” grass cutting, landscaping and some lighting, that money is only expected to last about three years. Much of the roughly $31.3 million in toll reserves is already dedicated to other projects and the current operating budget. Desselle said the new funding mechanism will mean changes, but not a total collapse.
“The operating budget that we’re working under was put together with the assumption that we would not be collecting tolls at the end of last year,” he said. “Nothing is going to fall into disrepair.”
During Desselle’s presentation, Roberts regularly guided the discussion back to the idea that the state has a plethora of projects awaiting funding, and it’s unclear where Jefferson Parish’s needs fit into the state’s priorities. Roberts, who supported renewing the tolls, said that it’s fine to point to the toll reserves as a funding source now, but that money can’t solve every problem.
“My bigger question is, what happens when the transition fund runs out,” Roberts said. “Our answer right now is that the transition fund is going to take care of the problems.”
Roberts wanted to know who is going to pay for lights on walking trails beneath the expressway, which has been called a public safety issue by law enforcement officials. Decorative lighting on the bridge, which costs a total of $65,000 annually, already has been eliminated. He noted that no funding sources have been identified for crucial improvements to the Harvey Tunnel or ramps at Manhattan and Barataria Boulevards.
“The facility can look like it’s in a third world country, and we’re just supposed to accept that, and I have a problem with that,” Roberts said.
Desselle said that the state’s plans are still uncertain. DOTD must meet with the RPC to determine priorities for capital projects, like a $41 million bridge repainting program, which cannot proceed as originally designed without toll revenue. The state also must figure out how to move forward with ferry service since the two routes to Canal Street do not have dedicated funding after June 30. In addition, DOTD does not typically pay for lighting or landscaping anywhere in the state, Desselle said.
“The local government picks up the cost of lighting or landscape maintenance … We generally do not have that budgeted,” he said.
But Councilman Ricky Templet took exception to that stance, noting that in most places the state tells local governments up front that the maintenance of certain capital projects will fall on them in the future. However, with the Crescent City Connection and West Bank Expressway, local agencies had no input into state decisions. Templet argued that since the state already deviated from the norm, it needs to go further.
“I don’t think anywhere in this process over the years DOTD and the Crescent City Connection negotiated with the parish or New Orleans,” Templet said.
Desselle said the DOTD is still working on a new traffic alignment for the toll plaza pending the outcome of the May election. Councilman Mark Spears said he’s received complaints about traffic on the span since the tolls were suspended, although others have said traffic problems have been non-existent.