Public opposition to tolls may cause Louisiana to lose a $45 million federal grant for a $156 million bridge and tunnel replacement in Plaquemines Parish.
A legislative committee in September directed Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson to find out whether the state could keep the grant without collecting tolls. Wilson said he had no expectations of keeping the grant in that situation, and he has since confirmed that belief with federal officials.
“The grant was contingent upon this being a public-private partnership that was generating tolls,” Wilson said in an interview. “This is consistent with what President [Donald] Trump is advocating.”
Wilson has not yet had a follow-up meeting with the Joint Transportation, Highways and Public Works Committee to discuss his next steps. Local officials, including Plaquemines Parish President Kirk Lepine, the parish council, Rep. Chris Leopold, R-Belle Chasse, and Rep. Pat Connick, a Marrero Republican who will be the next state senator for part of Plaquemines Parish, all have expressed opposition to a new bridge with tolls.
Under the agreement proposed by DOTD, residents would pay 45 cents per trip, with 1 cent added per year for up to 30 years. Commercial trucks would pay up to $6.90.
Local officials have noted a bill approved by lawmakers this year redirects almost $700 million from the state’s BP spill settlement to major transportation projects around the state but none in Plaquemines Parish, which was directly affected by the spill. Critics also say the public-private partnership would significantly drive up the cost of the project.
One speaker at the September meeting suggested using the state’s $500-million-plus surplus for the project. Wilson said that suggestion wouldn’t satisfy federal officials’ desire for “net new revenue” from the project, leaving the state to pay the project’s full cost.
“So it’s a much larger chunk of the state surplus money that would be needed, or other one-time funds,” Wilson said. “As we take certain things off the table, there are certain restrictions that govern the funds.”
DOTD still would have access to $20 million in federal dollars for maintenance of the existing bridge and tunnel. But once it starts spending that money, using federal dollars to build the replacement project would be off the table for at least a decade, he said.
The Belle Chasse project is not the only state toll effort that isn’t working out as planned. Since 2010, the Louisiana Transportation Authority has been collecting tolls to pay off the state debt associated with a $350 million bridge replacement on La. 1. The project was considered important to Port Fourchon and the offshore oil industry.
Though the tolls were supposed to cover the entire debt and the operational costs, state lawmakers have had to come up with an extra $2 million to $5 million annually to make the debt payments while also subsidizing operations, Wilson said, even though revenue has increased the past two fiscal years due to toll increases and heavier bridge traffic.
Wilson still believes public-private partnerships will be an important tool for funding Louisiana’s infrastructure, but said DOTD will respect the fact that some communities oppose tolls.
“That also means you may not get the system that you would like to have,” he added.