Nov 2, 2012 3:16 PM by AP
NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Commuters who traverse the Crescent City Connection bridge into New Orleans may soon no longer have to deal with the cost and inconvenience of bridge tolls, unless voters decide to keep them in place.
Voters in Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes and in New Orleans will decide whether tolls that have been collected since 1989 from motorists using the New Orleans-bound lanes of the bridges over the Mississippi River should expire in January.
Proponents, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and most members of a state task force that studied the issue, say the tolls - $1 per car or 40 cents for motorists with electronic toll tags - should remain to provide dedicated revenue for operating, lighting, maintaining and repairing the bridges.
Opponents, among them state Rep. Patrick Connick, say allowing the tolls to expire would simply be keeping a promise to motorists, now that construction debt for the newer of the two spans is paid off. The state has money to maintain and improve the bridge, they argue.
Besides, opponents say, collecting the tolls simply ties up traffic on a vital artery.
Powerful business interests lined up in recent weeks in favor of extending the tolls, which generate more than $20 million a year.
Bridging Progress, a political action committee, kicked off a campaign in late October to support the tolls, including a news conference with leaders from business-oriented organizations including Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Jefferson Business Council.
A report last February from a state task force made up mostly of representatives from economic development and business associations from the New Orleans area made the case for continuing tolls.
"It is the opinion of the majority of the Task Force that elimination of the tolls will result in a reduction in the level of current services funded by tolls, elimination of the regions ability to control its own destiny as to maintenance and capital improvements, reduction in ferry service, significant dependence on limited state funding and elimination of mandated toll-funded projects," the report said.
"The tolls provide the Greater New Orleans area with a means to provide for itself and to ensure that its quality of life is not disturbed by the needs and demands of the remainder of the state."
Among those on the other side of the issue are a grass-roots organization "Stop the Tolls," and the Bureau of Governmental Research, a New Orleans-based government watchdog.
BGR published a lengthy analysis in 2011 calling for an end to the tolls, and recommended rejection of the tolls in an Oct. 1 report on ballot issues.
"While the lack of a dedicated funding source creates as risk, it is an acceptable one," BGR said, noting that the state Department of Transportation and Development has committed to inspecting, maintaining and repairing the bridges.