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Too Early to Worry About Tolls

American Press • Baton Rouge, Louisiana • May 2, 2019

Too early to worry about tolls

Jim Beam

Area motorists who are concerned about the possibility of having to
pay tolls to use a new Interstate 10 bridge at Lake Charles can relax.
The reality is a new bridge here may not be constructed for years, but
that doesn’t mean our elected officials shouldn’t keep looking for
ways to finance the project.

The state doesn’t have the money to build a new bridge here, or
anywhere else. An official with the state Department of Transportation
and Development (DOTD) said $9 billion of a $14 billion road and
bridge backlog is for badly needed bridge construction or repairs
everywhere.

The Chamber/Southwest Louisiana seized the initiative and created a
citizen task force to explore ways to fund the building of a bridge.
They came up with a great plan involving public-private partnerships
(P3s) and the possibility of using toll revenues to repay the private
company or companies that might help finance and construct a bridge.

The Council of State Governments, a non-partisan public policy
advocacy organization, in 2016 said 34 states had legislation allowing
them to enter into public-private partnerships. Louisiana became one
of those when Gov. John Bel Edwards that same year signed a Senate
bill that authorized the Louisiana DOTD to solicit and enter into P3
contracts for certain transportation projects.

Joshua Hollins, executive counsel for DOTD, during debate on Rep. Mark
Abraham’s bill creating a Calcasieu Parish Tolling Authority, said the
Belle Chasse Tunnel and Bridge is being replaced with the state’s
first public-private partnership arrangement. The cost is estimated to
be $122 million and the project has secured a $45 million federal
grant to replace the aging bridge-and-tunnel span over the Gulf
Intracoastal Waterway in Plaquemines Parish.

Hollins said the state has learned a lot from the Belle Chasse
experience. Tolls will pay for $39 million of the cost of the bridge,
and there is a possibility of more federal funding. The toll would be
reduced once the private company is repaid in order to have
maintenance funds.

The DOTD hopes to be back at the Legislature next year to start a
bridge project at Lake Charles, Hollins said. More legislation may be
needed.

Meanwhile, Abraham, R-Lake Charles, Rep. Ryan Bourriaque, R-Cameron,
and Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, are sponsoring legislation designed
to lay the groundwork that might be needed to finance the bridge.
Abraham has the toll bill, Bourriaque is getting DOTD involved and
Johns is trying to create the Calcasieu Parish Bridge Fund.

The Johns bill dedicates money to the bridge fund that might come from
litigation filed by the state to recover damages caused by an ethylene
dichloride (EDC) spill in the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles. A
fiscal note says a suit was filed against Conoco, Phillips 66, or
Conoco-Phillips, after the 1994 spill.

Abraham’s bill had no opposition in the House Transportation
Committee, was approved 93-1 by the full House and moves to the
Senate. Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, was the lone no vote. He was
a prime mover in getting tolls removed from the Crescent City
Connection bridges in New Orleans long after they paid for cost of the
bridges.

During committee debate, it was clear the new bridge concept still has
a long way to go before it can be approved. DOTD would make an effort
to secure federal funding, which would reduce the cost of the tolls.

Abraham said it is impossible to determine at this time what the cost
of tolls could be. Proposals have to be received from private
companies that might be interested in constructing the bridge. The
cost of the bridge would be a factor as well as how much federal
financing might be obtained. Written consent also has to be obtained
from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“This is new ground we are shaping here. This is just the beginning of
a long process,” Abraham said. “You always have to be proactive.”

Persons unfamiliar with today’s tolling may not be aware that it is
electronic. A transponder on a vehicle’s windshield receives a radio
signal as motorists drive under or near it at highway speed and the
toll amount is deducted from a prepaid account.

A retired employee of AT&T in Broussard, in a letter to The Advocate,
said he didn’t have a transponder and used a toll road in Texas. He
said a camera photographed his license plate and he received a very
reasonable bill he said he was happy to pay for the convenience of
using that toll road.

President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders have agreed to
pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure plan to upgrade the nation’s
highways, railroads and bridges. If they figure out how to pay for the
plan, there could well be money available for projects like the new
I-10 bridge here.

Meanwhile, don’t get too disturbed about the possibility of tolls. If
they happen at all, it won’t be anytime soon.



Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people
and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871
or jbeam@americanpress.com.

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