Melinda Deslatte / The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A toll bridge that has been riddled with problems since opening in coastal south Louisiana near Grand Isle has increased its collections by adding a payment lane on site, the chief financial officer of the Department of Transportation and Development said Wednesday.
DOTD Undersecretary Michael Bridges said the collection rate has grown by 10 percent since the shift from offsite toll payment kiosks, with fewer people skipping out on paying the travel costs.
However, Bridges acknowledged the change last month at the bridge on La. Highway 1 in Leeville, on the way to the popular fishing and vacation island, also has encountered problems. The glitches include equipment failure, long lines and driver confusion.
"We are working through some challenges right now, and we will be rolling out some additional options in the future," Bridges told the Louisiana Transportation Authority, a state panel that oversees the toll project.
The $161 million bridge was part of an upgrade to a flood-prone area critical to the nation's offshore oil and gas industry, designed to improve transportation and protect the strategic roadway. But it has been prone to problems since its opening in July 2009, when toll collections began.
Toll revenue is supposed to repay the borrowing costs to build the bridge. The costs vary depending on the type of vehicle, with cars and most other two-axle vehicles charged $2.50 roundtrip and the heaviest trucks charged $12.
Until mid-June, toll payments for those who didn't have a pre-paid toll tag had to be made at off-site kiosks, which led to confusion, criticism and unpaid tolls. Last month, one of the loans used to finance the 18-mile bridge over Bayou Lafourche was downgraded to junk bond status because of weak performance on the toll collections.
Bridges said the onsite, automated toll payment lane opened June 20 and the kiosks were shut down. Now, people can pay on the bridge, with cash or credit cards. No one is on site to collect the money; the entire process is through a computerized machine.
The switchover has caused new snags.
Bridges said cars and trucks ran into long lines during peak travel hours and when special events were happening on Grand Isle. Also, transaction times took longer than expected, and problems arose because of weather's impact on the automated toll collection machine, he said.
DOTD plans to add another payment lane in October, and canopies will be used to shield the automated machines from rain, Bridges told the transportation panel.
"This is in my district. It has become a significant issue," said Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, who added he appreciated transportation department efforts to make changes to address concerns.
A new round of complaints is expected next year, when tolls are slated to grow higher to pay off the construction borrowing.
"Terrible timing for a toll increase," Chabert said.