Leeville Bridge004.JPG

Leeville Bridge

Motorists headed to Grand Isle and Port Fourchon face toll fee hikes of 25 percent starting Monday, and operators of big trucks face increases too.

The charges apply to the La. Hwy. 1 bridge in Leeville, which opened in 2009 and has been plagued by a variety of problems.

The structure crosses Bayou Lafourche and is just west of Grand Isle, a major fishing destination.

The route is used to haul much of the nation's crude oil and natural gas supplies.

Under the loan agreement that provided financing, tolls rise every five years. The last one took effect in January 2013.

Charges for two-axle vehicles, which include cars, SUV's and some trucks, will rise from $3 to $3.75.

Tolls for three axles, like trucks hauling boats, will rise from $4.50 to $5.50.

The top charge applies to trucks with six axles, which will go up from $15 to $18.

Despite the upcoming hike residents generally understand why it is happening, said state Rep. Jerry "Truck" Gisclair, D-Larose, whose House district includes the area.

"Obviously the group I drink coffee with every morning at the local truck stop, I get an earful from them," Gisclair said Friday.

"They know it is part of the loan agreement,' Gisclair said. "They are ready to move on."

The bridge replaced one finished in 1969, which formerly sat in 40 feet of water – instead of the 10-foot depth the lift bridge originally was built for – because of Louisiana's vanishing coastline.

"People realize the structure is well worth it compared to driving at sea level," Gisclair said.

The state has paid $22.6 million for the structure, but still owes $259.6 million.

The bridge has been troubled by a wide range of issues, notably inadequate revenue to pay off borrowing costs.

The state spends about $500,000 per year to make up the gap between toll revenue and what the state owes, Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said Friday.

The downturn in the oil industry is one reason traffic forecasts have failed to meet forecasts.

"On the one hand traffic projections are always key to getting it right on the money," Wilson said. "On the other hand, what happens in the oil and gas industry is tremendous."

Around 8,000 to 10,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily.

Toll revenue has dropped from $5.6 million in the financial year that ended June 30, 2016 to $4.6 million for the budget year that ended on June 30.

From July-November revenue totaled $1.9 million, Wilson said.

The bridge is one of two tolling structures in Louisiana. It is the only one operated by DOTD.

"Tolling stands out as the purest form of a user fee to help cover the cost of infrastructure," Wilson said in a statement announcing the toll increases.

"If we are going to get serious about providing various funding alternatives, we have to embrace national best practices that are proven in the tolling community like public-private partnerships," he said.

Years ago a legislative audit said state officials were allowing too many motorists to use the bridge without paying.

State transportation officials have allowed up to 300,000 cars and trucks to use a troubled toll bridge in far south Louisiana without operato…

Wilson said that problem has improved dramatically after tolling methods were changed.

Other controversies included higher-than-expected construction costs and who should qualify for discounts.

Port Fourchon provides equipment and other support for offshore oil and gas drilling.

"The road was needed, it was built and now we have to live with it," Gisclair said.

"When the rates went up five years ago virtually no one complained," he said. "And I reminded everyone that this will be going up every five years for the life of the loan."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.