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Watchdog group asks Causeway officials to hold off on toll hike

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SLIDELL, LA (WVUE) -

A North Shore watchdog group calls for the Causeway Commission to hold off on a proposal to raise tolls on the Causeway, saying St. Tammany bridge users are paying for far more than their share, and they want that changed.

"We're asking them to postpone increasing tolls on the bridge," said Rick Franzo with Concerned Citizens of St Tammany.

Many say it's not that they don't support safety improvements on the Causeway, it's just that they don't think St. Tammany commuters should have to pay.

"It's absolutely wrong that this money is being diverted to other places and St. Tammany is paying for the tolls on these bridges," Franzo said.

Concerned Citizens met with Causeway officials last week and just sent a letter asking the Commission to hold off on a vote later this month. The proposal is to raise tolls by $1 for toll tag users and $2 for cash customers to fund 12 new safety pullout bays and higher guardrails on the southbound span. 

They said the bridge is already twice as safe as local interstates and commuters, largely from the North Shore shouldn't bare that burden since their toll money already pays out more than $2 million a year for things like patrols on the Huey Long bridge and cash payments of $50,000 a year to seven surrounding parishes.

"We're working to change state law so the money comes back to the Causeway not other areas around the state," said Franzo.

The letter from the group also expresses dismay that after 60 years, the bonds on the bridge have never been paid off, which would allow it to be turned over to the state and federal officials.

"That should be part of the interstate system, and we want to know why that isn't being done," said Franzo.

Causeway General Manager Carlton Dufrechou said even if laws were changed and toll money allocations were kept with the bridge, it would not be enough.

"To amortize that over 30 to  40 years, it might be three times that much," Dufrechou said.

He said he doesn't plan on delaying a request to raise tolls, which he says are needed for maintenance, improvements  and continued patrols.

"Does it need first responders? Definitely. No matter what happens, it's imperative to have enforcement on this bridge day and night, and the first responders," said Dufrechou.

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"Laws need to be changed on the state level, and then we got to bring it to the federal level," said 
Franzo.

He  says if the commission delays the vote, the concerned citizens group and it's hundreds of members, will lobby to keep more toll money with the bridge to fund improvements.  At some point he says that could clear the way for existing bonds to be paid, with the tolls eventually coming off.
The commission for now is scheduled to hold a special meeting to vote on the toll increases, later this month.

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