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Louisiana's Famed Causeway Is a Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Charles Hillinger's America

February 25, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER

NEW ORLEANS — They call it the Bridge With a Heart.

If a motorist has a flat while driving the 24-mile Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world's longest over-water bridge, police on patrol will change the tire without charge.

"When cars overheat, we add water to radiators. If a vehicle stops running because of a problem we can fix, we take care of it," explained Mario Margiotta, 52, chief of the bridge's 20-man police force. "We pride ourselves on being service-oriented."

Motorists lose sight of land for an eight-mile stretch of the bridge over the lake, which is half the size of Rhode Island. They have the sensation of being at sea.

"Some become so afraid after being over the water so long they freeze, stop their car and are unable to go any farther. We come along, rescue them and take them to the other side," said Margiotta, a bridge policeman for 18 years.

He mentioned a New Orleans psychologist, who, from time to time, conducts weeklong classes for those who must commute to work on the bridge but have qualms about driving it.

"The doctor drives back and forth over the water with his patients. He stops his car on one of the seven crossovers linking the separate two-lane spans. (One for each direction; they are 80 feet apart.) His patients get out and walk around. By the end of the week they lose their fear and the doctor gives them diplomas," the chief said.

Babies have been born in cars on the bridge to mothers who didn't make it to hospitals on the other side. An airplane once ran out of gas flying over Lake Pontchartrain and landed safely on the causeway.

The bridge carries an average of 20,000 vehicles daily, many with commuters who live in St. Tammy Parish and work in New Orleans. The toll is $1 per car each direction.

Bird-watchers from all over the country come to the bridge to see the world's largest purple martin roost from February through September.

Each night at sundown, thousands of purple martins swarm around the south end of the bridge in a spectacular swirl, then fly under the bridge to roost.

The Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission, also known as the Causeway Commission, created a park along the lake shore for people to observe the birds.

The commission has administered the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway since it opened to traffic on Aug. 30, 1956, with completion of the first span at a cost of $30.7 million. The second span cost $29.9 million and opened March 23, 1969.

It was Bennett Powell, the causeway commissioner, and Robert Lambert, the bridge's general manager, who decided something had to be done about pollution in Lake Pontchartrain.

"Lake Pontchartrain, one of Louisiana's most important natural resources was once a beautiful lake. Today, it is so badly polluted that beaches are closed and no one can swim in it or fish along its shores," said Lambert, 42. He started as a patrolman on the bridge in 1971 and became its general manager in 1984.

"No other agency at any level was taking any action to save the lake," Lambert said, "so the Causeway Commission last year authorized a $30,000 study of the lake by three professors: Oliver Houck and John Elstrott of Tulane; and Fritz Wagner of the University of New Orleans."

Last April, the professors issued a 300-page report, a blueprint for cleaning and restoring the ecological balance of the lake.

It recommended formation of a state agency to lead the effort. The Louisiana Legislature created the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation to carry out that mandate.

For 50 years, the lake (average depth 14 feet) has been mined for clam shells used in road construction throughout the state. As many as seven barges operate on the lake 18 hours a day, year-round, dredging up to a third of the lake bottom each year.

Equipped with hydraulic suction heads, the dredges dig two to three feet under the bottom and suck up the lake's ecosystem. The shells are removed; the dredgers discharge the toxic spoil back into the lake.

Mining takes place under a lease from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Virginia Van Sickle, secretary of the department, admits that shell dredging damages the lake but so far has refused to terminate the leases. Revenues from the leases--$4 million a year--provide the bulk of funding for her department.

Public hearings were conducted last October. The foundation has filed suit for a permanent injunction banning shell dredging.

Pollution in the lake also is caused by urban and agricultural runoff, sewage and salt water intrusion.

Causeway Commissioner Powell is also chairman of the board of the new agency to clean up Lake Pontchartrain and causeway general manager Lambert is acting director.

"When I was a kid we could anchor in the middle of the lake and it was so clear we could see ripples of the sand on the bottom. Every family has wonderful stories about swimming, boating, fishing, crabbing and family outings on the lake," Powell recalled. "Unfortunately, we neglected the lake for too many years and it has deteriorated."

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