Non-Causeway projects getting $1.5 million of Causeway money

Non-Causeway projects getting $1.5 million of Causeway money

METAIRIE, LA (WVUE) - For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the Causeway Commission raked in more than $16 million in tolls.

The biggest chunk pays for salaries, bridge maintenance and policing, but it's not only for policing the Causeway. Last year, the commission paid $1.3 million to patrol the Huey P. Long Bridge, and funneling money away from the Causeway does not sit well with many people on the north shore.

"There's no reason for the Causeway Commission to have to patrol the Huey P. Long. That's in the heart of Jefferson Parish. The State Police and Jefferson Parish are much better suited, and they are there," St. Tammany Councilman Jacob Groby said.

Groby plans to vote against the commission's proposal to sell more than $100 million in bonds to pay for safety upgrades. The commission wants to install higher rails and safety lanes in an effort to prevent drivers from careening into Lake Pontchartrain, like we saw earlier this month.

But there are two hurdles before the commission can purchase the bonds, which would in turn increase toll prices. The St. Tammany Council and Jefferson Parish Council must approve it.

"You've got to ask yourself, is that right?" Groby said. "I can tell you that the lion's weight of this money is coming from St. Tammany. When is enough going to be enough?"

But the Huey P. Long is not the only non-Causeway project getting Causeway money. Each year seven parishes get $50,000 from the commission. Five of those - St. James, St. John the Baptist, Orleans, Tangipahoa and Washington Parish - do not touch the Causeway. Orleans Parish splits its $50,000, with half going to the New Orleans Recreational Department and the other half to New Orleans police for the purchase of new bullet-proof vests.

In all, more than $1.5 million each year gets shifted to projects other than the Causeway.

"There is no quantifiable reason why this money has to be dolled out to these parishes," Groby said.

But the money allocated to those other parishes must go there because state law mandates it. It will not get changed unless lawmakers choose to do so.

"My understanding, because this predates my time as a legislator - probably even as a person - it was basically seen as a way to give back to those parishes that gave so much to the original creation of the Causeway," Senator JP Morrell said.

Morrell changed the law in 2008 to get the money already allocated to Orleans Parish shifted to buy the bullet-proof vests. Morrell said the state already gives millions each year to the Causeway, and if the money allocated to Orleans is needed for upgrades, he would gladly take a look at changing the law.

"If that $50,000 is a hurdle for the millions of dollars they need to get to make the Causeway more safe, I think our delegation would be more than willing to revisit is that $50,000 even necessary, because at the end of the day, a safer Causeway is good for everybody who goes back and forth across it," Morrell said.

In order to collect the money to pay for the safety upgrades, the commission would have to stop sending money to those parishes and stop patrolling the Huey P. Long for more than two decades.

Both St. Tammany and Jefferson Parish council are expected to vote on the bond sale within the next two months.

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