Belle Chasse Bridge stock

Advocate file photo of the Belle Chasse Bridge

Opponents of tolls planned for the new Belle Chasse bridge held two protests on Monday.

The gatherings were set for 7 a.m. until 8:30 a.m. at the foot of the current bridge and from 4:30 p.m. until 6 p.m. at the same site.

About 50 people attended the morning gathering, said Mike Scorsone, an engineer and lifelong resident of the parish and one of the organizers.

"All we are doing right now is a show of unity, a show that we are here, that we are real," Scorsone said Monday.

"And we are not professional protesters," he added. "We are just average, normal everyday citizens that say this is a bad deal."

The $162 million bridge and tunnel represent Louisiana's first public-private partnership on a major transportation project.

The work includes about $45 million in federal dollars and $12.5 million in state aid but tolls are also planned to help finance operations.

Private firms typically enter into partnerships with the state in exchange for a long-term revenue stream from tolls or other sources to recoup construction costs, plus a profit.

Critics say the tolls would amount to $800 million over 30 years.

"We are trying to stop an unfair tax that will take $800 million out of our local economy," opponents said in a press release.

"The politicians in Baton Rouge are taking all of the BP oil spill settlement money and using it to pay for new roads and bridges across Louisiana that won't have tolls," they said.

"Meanwhile, Plaquemines Parish, hardest hit by the oil spill, gets none of the BP settlement money for its new bridge and instead gets stuck with a 30-year tax," critics said.

Earlier this year the Legislature approved a $690 million transportation spending plan that will be financed by revamping how the state spends settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill.

The list includes construction of the $125 million La. Hwy. 415 connector in West Baton Rouge Parish.

It will link Interstate 10 with La. Hwy. 1.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said Sunday the $800 million estimate is high.

Wilson also said the $45 million is federal aid was predicated on the use of tolls to help finance the new bridge.

Removing tolls from the equation could endanger that $45 million and other planned funding sources, he said.

"Without those (tolls) you don't get to keep the $45 million," Wilson said.

Plans call for residents of Plaquemines Parish to pay 45 cents per trip across the new bridge.

Trucks, vehicles outside the parish and others would pay up to $6.90 per trip.

The movable bridge at Belle Chasse was built in 1967. The tunnel opened in 1955.

Motorists use two southbound lanes through the tunnel on La. Hwy. 23 and two northbound lanes via the bridge. About 33,000 travelers use the route daily across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Both structures would be replaced by a fixed span, four-lane bridge that could open in 2022-23. 

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.