Audit: Unpaid tolls cost millions

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - State transportation officials have allowed up to 300,000 cars and trucks to use a troubled toll bridge in far south Louisiana without operators paying, according to a report issued on Monday.

In addition, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said in an 18-page review that state officials failed to charge motorists with electronic accounts that had insufficient funds and did not send delinquency notices to nearly 40,000 violators who used the La. 1 bridge in Leeville.

In an interview, Purpera told the Advocate the bridge was built for $365 million "but we don't seem to get the toll collection system to work." "We need to," he says.

The report is just the latest problem to surface since the bridge opened in 2009. The structure is just west of Grand Isle and crosses Bayou Lafourche. It is used to haul nearly 20 percent of the nation's crude oil and natural gas supplies, fishing enthusiasts and others.

Toll collections have been a problem since they started being collected two years ago, and state officials said in July that troubles remained despite the opening of a cash lane in June.

About 8,000 to 10,000 cars and trucks use the bridge daily. Most car drivers who use the bridge pay $2.50 per round trip.

The top charge for big trucks is $12. But Purpera's report said that about 300,000 violation images of license plates from previous years - generally cars and trucks using the bridge without operators paying - remain unprocessed and unbilled "because of system and personnel constraints." "The risk of not collecting these violations increases the longer they remain unbilled," the review states.

Even if only 100,000 of the pictures represent violations, Purpera said, that could mean $2 million in additional toll revenue. How much other revenue is being left uncollected is unclear.

In a written response, state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri LeBas agreed with the criticism on the roughly 300,000 unchecked violations. "DOTD is exploring contracting out the review of these images," LeBas wrote.

Rhett Desselle, assistant DOTD secretary, said in an interview that state officials are seeking help to study images of possible violations.