The 2012 French Quarter Festival attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors in April. During the four-day fest, more than 60,000 visitors arrived via the Algiers Ferry, which links Algiers Point to Canal Street.
Above the ferries rises the Crescent City Connection, which has had a toll operating on the West Bank side of its bridge since 1989 — to support bonds taken out to finance construction of its second span, to maintain the bridge and to help support the ferries. Those bonds are on track to be paid off, and the tolls are set to expire at the end of 2012.
Big mistake, says a task force organized by the state Senate to "analyze re-authorization of the tolls." The task force released its report in February, and based on the document's recommendations and findings, the task force voted 7-1 to reauthorize the tolls.
The report cites a litany of services that would suffer if tolls are not renewed: regular maintenance, repainting, trash pickup, grass cutting, lighting, police services, traffic flow and the ferries, which could face mothballing. If the current legislative session ends June 4 without lawmakers taking action to continue the tolls, there's little anyone can do to keep the tolls in force. Gov. Bobby Jindal opposes any toll extension. His budget for 2012-2013 contemplates a privatized ferry fleet.
"There's going to be decreased services," says task force member Glen Orgeron, who represents the Algiers Economic Development Foundation, "and there seems to be no realization of that."
The Crescent City Connection Division (CCCD) of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development gets its money from bridge tolls ($1 per car, 40 cents with a toll tag), federal funding, lease agreements, and ferry tolls. In 2009, the CCCD's income averaged $23.5 million, with more than $20 million from bridge tolls.
The ferries' annual operating budget is $11.5 million. Without the dedicated funding stream from the tolls, there is no clear way to keep them running at their current levels. Ferry tolls in 2009 accounted for less than $300,000. A 2009 report from the Regional Planning Commission ("Waterborne Public Transit Study") found passenger-paid fees contributed an average of only 7 percent of the ferry's annual operating revenues. (In 2007, the fees comprised only 2 percent of revenues.) The CCCD, meanwhile, accounts for more than 80 percent of the ferry budget. Without the bridge tolls, the annual 2.9 million ferry riders would be forced to take the bridge, the task force argues. The bridge currently operates at capacity, carrying 7,200 cars per hour, or nearly 180,000 cars a day.
Without the tolls (and the ferries), the increased bridge traffic — and decreased police presence on the bridge — could increase accidents and prolong daily rush hours.
The task force is asking state legislators to amend pending transportation bills to add language to reauthorize the bridge tolls. During French Quarter Fest weekend, it collected more than 3,200 signatures on a petition asking for support. The task force recommendations also drew support from the transit advocacy group Transport for NOLA, the New Orleans and Jefferson chambers of commerce, New Orleans City Council President Jackie Clarkson and District C Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer.
But the idea of extending the tolls has opponents as well. State Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, says the task force report doesn't count for much in Baton Rouge.
"The task force report isn't even considered up here," he says. "People know it's a flawed document. It adds fuel to the fire why the tolls need to go."
Connick has supported toll deauthorization and pushed for potential criminal investigations into alleged CCCD mismanagement. His opposition, according to task force members, bottles up potential legislative support for reauthorizing the tolls. Connick argues that chronic mismanagement of toll revenues has undercut public confidence in the CCCD. "We're at this point because nobody did anything, they let the money be wasted, and public confidence in DOTD and CCCD is gone," he says.
Example: CCCD payroll expenditures increased from $7 million in 2010-2011 to more than $8 million in 2011-2012, while neither year's budget had any charges for major repairs. CCCD's operating budget still has no dollars pegged to repair work — despite the task force recommendations for a host of repairs totaling millions of dollars.
An email conversation between Connick and task force members reveals Connick would support the tolls — if the task force agreed to ask the FBI to investigate the CCCD's insurance policy arrangements, construction of its administrative building and the use of ferry revenues. The task force didn't press for such an investigation, though its report outlines recommendations for management reform.
"While he attempted to obtain something from the task force in exchange for publicly being in support of the tolls, his willingness to ultimately come out in support of the tolls cannot be understated," wrote Pamela Lormand, a member of the task force and the Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council.
"I called their bluff," Connick tells Gambit, adding, "It's too late. For them to claim the organization was cleaned up — prove it to me. Their inaction proved they weren't serious about it."
In a Senate transportation committee meeting in April, Connick repeated that he'd support tolls, provided the operation was run correctly.
At that same meeting, State Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, said while the state is $12 billion behind in road repair projects, deauthorizing a funding source puts the CCC right in line with dozens other underfunded projects.
"You're going to find yourself in a mess without it," he said. "You're going to find yourself in the same boat as the rest of us."
The task force says the CCCD has available surplus funds, between $16 million and $22 million, for bridge and capital improvement projects. DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBlanc said that figure is likely closer to $10 million. Once the tolls are removed, however, and the bridge falls under the aegis of the state Department of Transportation, those funds move elsewhere and can be used for any road projects. They no longer belong to the CCC. The task force recommended purchasing new ferries before the funds roll over to the state.
"We can remove that golden egg," says Algiers Point Association president Skip Gallagher. "We're concerned the state is looking at it like it's small pot of money. It's enough to fill some gaps over the next year." The state last week learned that current fiscal year revenues will be more than $200 million short — and next year that figure rises to more than $500 million.
"That's a whole year's worth of tolls and getting money from Highway Fund II, the rental income from spots under the bridge — that's basically one entire year's budget," Lormand says of the money that the CCCD could lose to the state. "And they don't have to spend it on just the CCC. They can find funding for anybody else's project."
A potential "transition fund" would allocate a few million dollars following the toll's expiration to keep up repairs, grass cutting and ferry operation for the first few months of 2013.
Because of toll revenues, the CCCD can issue bonds for capital improvement projects on the bridge. Those bonds are paid by a 16-cent tax on car registrations and other fees split with the Causeway as part of Highway No. 2 Fund. The rest of the state doesn't have access to that fund, despite competition for road project funding throughout Louisiana. This year's estimated revenue from that fund is nearly $5 million — once the tolls are removed, though, the money would revert to the state. Connick says he's working on legislation to retain those funds.
While disagreement persists as to whether the tolls should remain, all parties agree there should be room for ferry service. Their best option for survival may be privatizing them. "There's an obvious need for it," says Friends of the Ferry president Fay Faron. "What if all those people (at French Quarter Fest) couldn't come, or didn't come? ... It'll take it to its knees."
The ferries, which range in age from 50 to 75 years old, use about $1 million in fuel a year, and a newer fleet would consume significantly less. The task force also says it's an opportunity for an overhaul of the ferry system, from creating museums and stations to expanding tourist appeal and pedestrian access.
"It's the only path to walk between two parts of the city," Gallagher says. "If you condemn the ferries, you effectively cut the city in half. ... The bridge was built without a pedestrian thoroughfare because the ferries were always agreed to be there."
The clock is ticking. Lawmakers now have less than five weeks to decide the fate of the CCC tolls — and the ferries.