MANDEVILLE- A Northshore lawmaker is heading to the state capitol next week with a bill to try to stop a safety improvement project for the Causeway.
That project will raise and strengthen the railings on the southbound span and add staggered shoulders for breakdowns. The estimated cost is $103 million and is expected to be paid for through bonds and increasing cash tolls to $5 and tag tolls to $3.
The project was developed after an increase in overboard crashes on the southbound span in recent years. Following crash testing and a financial analysis, the Causeway Commission approved going forward with the project. Both St. Tammany and Jefferson Parish Councils have given their blessings.
But State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Mandeville, is saying not so fast.
"You're talking about a substantial amount of money for a bridge that I think is relatively safe," he said.
After a survey showed almost 70 percent of his constituents were against the Causeway's improvement project, Hollis submitted House Bill 478.
"They said, 'Paul, we're uncomfortable with the fact that the Causeway Bridge tolls are going up. But it's not just that, we're uncomfortable with the fact of spending $103 million,'" recalled Hollis.
He said he's also uncomfortable with adding to the $40 million debt that remains from decades ago.
"We're talking about money that's beyond our children and our grandchildren," Hollis said.
While the measure won't stop the toll increase, which is a way to pay back the debt created by the project, it will require Causeway officials to take extra steps before taking on that debt.
The bill calls for a cost-benefit analysis, as well as an objective analysis of eight factors-- the condition of the bridge and the urgency of its needs, type and volume of traffic, crash records, any difficulties in plan preparation, if unforeseeable emergencies, like floods, are the cause of the needs, if capacity improvements are needed, whether bridge is an evacuation route, and whether the improvements will have an economic benefit.
However, bridge officials said the move is a surprise and one that will hurt more than it helps.
"The longer it's delayed, the more our commuters are at risk," said Causeway Executive Director Carlton Dufrechou, "These projects are all about enhancing the safety of our communities. It's pure and simple."
The topic has always generated a lot of opinions on both sides of the debate. Tuesday, when we asked Facebook followers about their thoughts on this recent development, the mixed reactions continued.
One commentor said, "Physical changes to the bridge alone will not improve bridge safety. The problem with the majority of accidents on the bridge are due to bad drivers going too fast, tailgating, texting, being intoxicated, not paying attention, and aggressive driving." Another said, "The Causeway will need to be maintained sooner than later with the thousands of driver's that use it every single day."
Bridge officials said accidents are inevitable.
"Even with enforcement with a police officer every doggone mile of the bridge, stuff happens," said Dufrechou, "People have blowouts. People kiss each other on the cars because there are only two lanes and they are moving at highway speeds. There will be an accident and unless the bridge is improved, we will have additional losses of life."
The state's Bond Commission has yet to give a thumbs up to the Causeway Commission for this plan because it hasn't been turned in by bridge officials yet. We're told it should be submitted in the next 90 days.