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June 30, 2009

AAA blows smoke on E-ZPass fees

AAA Mid-Atlantic put out a press release that does a good job of explaining the Maryland Transportation Authority's new fees and toll increases that take effect Wednesday. Unfortunately it goes on to blow a little smoke concerning its role.

AAA was actually late to the fight over the $1.50-a-month E-ZPass fee that has so many folks upset. It originally  supported the revenue package. It was AWOL at the meeting of the transportation authority board where the new  charges  were actually voted upon. It only started expressing opposition after hearing from members.

In today's release, it bloviates about its petition  effort to get Gov. Martin O'Malley to overturn the board's action. As AAA knows very well, the governor does not have that power.

 AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella explained that what the AAA meant to say was that it wanted O'Malley to persuade the board to rescind. The problem is, that would be perceived as political pressure. And for the board to be seen as bowing to such pressure carries a big risk.

 You see, the bond market, and bond rating agencies, value the independence of a toll authority's board -- knowing that necessary toll increases will never be popular with elected  officials. If a governor or legislature started to monkey with the actions of an independent board to score political points, the bond rating agencies could decide a downgrade was in order. The increased cost of the authority's borrowing could set back its maintenance efforts for years.

AAA is usually a trusted source of information and a responsible advocate on behalf of motorists. In this case, it put pandering to the masses over the need  to maintain its  credibility.

By the way, authority operations director Randy Brown tells me that Maryland expects to begin July  with more E-ZPass  subscribers than it did on Jan. 1. While about  19,000 subscribers have dropped their accounts, about 27,000 people have opened new accounts. The rate of growth has been slowed but hardly stopped.

Brown also told me that more than 72,000 of the authoriity's 500,000 accounts  as of Jan. 1 hadn't used their transponders in the previous 12 months. He said Maryland -- meaning fellow ratepayers -- paid $1.9 million to keep their accounts open.

"It's going to be a good business move to have customers who don't use their account to close  it," he said.

His statement may not be "sensitive" but it is correct.

Here's the AAA release:

 

NEW E-ZPASS FEES AND TOLL INCREASES EFFECTIVE JULY 1ST

AAA Mid-Atlantic and Over 5,000 Members Voiced Their Opposition To Increases

Towson, MD (June 30, 2009) – Effective July 1, 2009, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) is implementing several toll increases, as well as new fees for Marylanders holding E-ZPass accounts.
The E-ZPass fees effective July 1, 2009 consist of:
• A $1.50 monthly account maintenance charge;
• A charge for the cost of new and replacement transponders ($21 standard, $33 exterior, $40 fusion);
• A charge for a $3 Notice of Toll Due; and
• Toll violation charges increasing from $15 to $25.

Additionally, the MdTA will change the duration of E-ZPass commuter plans from 60 days to 45 days.

Other toll increases include:
• Eliminating toll rates for multi-axle vehicles, including trucks with three or more axles and vehicles towing trailers, to help ensure that costs to preserve Authority roadways are allocated proportionately;
• Eliminating the Class 7 toll-rate schedule; and, in its place, implementing an oversize permit charge to use Authority facilities.
• A $2-$5 toll increase per trip depending on the number of axles at the Francis Scott Key Bridge and Fort McHenry and Baltimore Harbor tunnels;
• A $4-$5.50 increase per trip at the Bay Bridge;
• A $5-$13 increase per trip at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and Hatem Bridge; and a $3 increase per trip at the Nice Bridge.  The cost for A-series commercial tickets at the Hatem Bridge would also increase proportionately.

The new fees were part of a cost-recovery initiative approved in January by the MdTA board that is expected to generate approximately $60 million annually for the self-supported agency that owns, operates and maintains Maryland’s seven toll facilities.
According to a letter from the former Maryland Transportation Secretary, John D. Porcari, the MdTA understands the impact of approving the initiative on Maryland motorists, but ultimately found that the cost recovery was necessary to help ensure system preservation and safety projects remain fully funded.  The Agency also believed it was necessary to impose the new E-ZPass fees to help recover processing costs for the electronic toll collection system.
“While AAA Mid-Atlantic certainly recognizes the necessity to generate revenue for the maintenance, preservation and safety of Maryland’s road and bridges and supported the majority of the cost-recovery initiative, we opposed the $1.50 monthly fee for E-ZPass, as well as the transponder fee for new accounts,” said Ragina C. Averella, Manager of Public & Government Affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.
Based on feedback from many of the auto club’s Maryland members, AAA Mid-Atlantic is concerned that some E-ZPass account holders whom are occasional users will cancel their account rather than pay the additional monthly charge, especially during this current economic climate.  “This would be counter-productive at a time when we need drivers to utilize electronic toll collections and should be encouraging more drivers to take advantage of E-ZPass to expedite the flow of traffic,” commented Averella.  “Longer toll lines will slow us all down and are a step backwards in our state’s transportation progress and mobility.”
AAA Mid-Atlantic expressed its opposition of the proposed E-ZPass fees to the Executive Secretary of the MdTA, and contacted Governor Martin O’Malley to request that the Governor overturn the MdTA’s decision.  The auto club encouraged its membership to contact the Governor, as well.  As a result, over 5,000 e-mails were sent to Governor O’Malley.
Posted by Michael Dresser at 8:55 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Maryland toll facilities, On the roads
        

Comments

"AAA is usually a trusted source of information and a responsible advocate on behalf of motorists. In this case, it put pandering to the masses over the need to maintain its credibility."
THis quote is hilarious coming from you who defends the State at every single opportunity. Even Steve Eldridge said he was shocked on how you could support the EZ-Pass charges. You defend this, you defend the constant MARC train breakdowns because the one time you rode it things went smoothly. You say how much beter Baltimore Metro is than DC. C'mon, this blog has become a bigger joke with time.
Was AAA pandering to us? Maybe, but at least they are advocating our behalf, allbeit late. I wish you would do that, instead of just defending the State at every chance.
A true reporter would be asking how come they said EZ-Pass would save money, but now its costing money? Get answers on that. Get answers as to why charge people with EZ-Pass more rather than raise the cash fare.

Take a look at the "Get There" blog on the Washington Post, he isn't afraid to defend the State/District/Metro people when needed, but he also isn't afraid to go after them when needed either. Its time we saw more of this from "Getting There." Until then, it'll always be getting there and it will never get there.

Michael - Are you getting a commission on each pro-MdTA post that you make? Do you honestly believe that the MdTA is paying $1.9 million per year to maintain 72,000 dormant accounts? If you really do believe this, and I suspect you do, why haven't you called these folks out on why they're paying so much to the so-called "contractor"?

If they're mailing out paper statements, they need to start slapping a charge on that, as several other jurisdictions are already doing. If not, then I don't see how those accounts could possibly cost that much to maintain.

I think we all would appreciate if you took a more unbiased view, instead of making it seem like you've made some sort of secret agreement with someone at the MdTA.

Great ... so there are 27,000 new subscribers and 19,000 who cancelled. Quick math, 8,000 more users. Why didn't you just say that instead of trying to play the "smoke & mirror" trick with the numbers. You like O'Malley and the rest of the State fools think we are to dumb to catch it? At least give us some credit for having intelligence.

Mike, thanks for your post. We appreciate you reading our releases and covering transportation issues that impact motorists throughout the state and region. While we feel that "pander" may be an inappropriate term, we do believe that the word "responsive" may be a more appropriate choice to describe AAA Mid-Atlantic's role in this issue. We were responsive to our membership and their concerns, which they expressed to us. After all, AAA exists for its membership and has been effective for more than 100 years representing their interests.

We've got a post up ourselves. I hope you and your readers will check it out.

Enjoy the holiday weekend and drive safely!

Ragina C. Averella

AAA Mid-Atlantic

"C'mon, this blog has become a bigger joke with time."

I have to agree, this blog really is a joke. The bias is quite obvious in most posts and many of the word choices are unprofessional. This blog reads more like a personal blog rather than from a paid Baltimore Sun employee.

Hello. There wouldn't be a need for this blog or article if we would get rid of these dangerous road blocks we call tolls. They cause accidents and waste millions of gallons of fuel each year. They also add pollution to the air we breathe. They are just another form of taxation which has become a health hazard.
Don't we already pay enough taxes in Maryland.

I am an occasional EZ-Pass user. I don't need the commuter plan. So I dropped my MD EZ-Pass and got one from West Virginia. They don't have a monthly fee.

Ragina:

I can understand why the AAA doesn't like the word "pander." It's not a very pretty word -- even when true.

Do you remember how Maryland legislators delayed covered-load legislation for a decade -- resulting in countless cracked windshields for your members?

How do you think the history of that era should be written? Were legislators pandering to lobbyists or merely being responsive?

The bottom line is: AAA knows as well as any organization in the state how destructive it would be to compromise the independence of a toll-setting authority? But it advocated such a position anyway - putiing the burden on others to be the adults in the room.

The upside: You avoid the difficulty of explaining the facts of life to members who don't want to listen. The downside: You lose credibility with those who understand the stakes.

This is probably the only venue in which you will be called out for taking such a position. But somebody's gotta do it.

Cheers,

Mike

For the most part I have no beef with the buck-and-a-half per month fee. What [i]does[/i] upset me is the cost to replace a transponder. See, the transponders are battery-powered; they [i]will[/i], at some point, start failing. So why should I have to pay to get a replacement?

COMMENT: That ($21), I'm told, is what they cost. For years, the cost has been subsidized by all toll-payers. Now that the E-ZPass system has the critical mass to stand on its own, the state's ending what was in effect a teaser rate. I won't be happy when my transponders give out, but should I expect somkeone else to pay? -- MTD

Doesn't the transponder operate on a small lithium battery? If so, wouldn't it make more sense for MdTA to just replace the lithium batteries for $2 or $3 a piece instead of disposing the non-working transponders and charging $21 for replacements?

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About Michael Dresser
Michael Dresser has been an editor, reporter and columnist with The Sun longer than Baltimore's had a subway. He's covered retailing, telecommunications, state politics and wine. Since 2004, he's been The Sun's transportation writer. He lives in Ellicott City with his wife and travel companion, Cindy.

His Getting There column appears on Mondays. Mike's blog will be a forum for all who are interested in highways, transit and other transportation issues affecting Baltimore, Maryland and the region.
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