Authority gets it right on ICC tolls
While I was on vacation last week, the Maryland Transportation Authority took a vote on the toll structure for the Intercounty Connector. Not only did the board do right by the Baltimore region by brushing aside howls from Montgomery County that the tolls would be too high, the nine-member body made some wise improvements to the original plan.
By approving peak rates as high as 35 cents a mile, the board did its best too make sure that ICC users pay as much of the cost of building the highway as possible. Giving them a break, as demanded by the Montgomery County Council and other elected officials, would have created a shortfall that likely would have had to be made up for with toll increases at bridges, tunnels and highways that are heavily used by Baltimore-area residents.
The authority corrected one of the glaring flaws in the original plan by adopting an overnight rate as low as 10 cents a mile. The original, two-tiered plan had made no distinction between 3 p.m. and 3 a.m. The modified plan will encourage even low-income drivers to use the ICC rather than local roads between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Proving that the hearings were not a hollow exercise, the board also approved a change giving a break to motorcycles with sidecars. That comes straight out of the testimony of one motorcyclist who showed up at the hearing in Beltsville.
Of course, the wisdom of the authority's actions were lost on elected officials such as Montgomery County Council Chairman Phil Andrews, who dashed off a letter asking Gov. Martin O'Malley to intervene to prevent the toll plan from going into effect.
What Andrews ignores is that gubernatorial intervention in a toll decision would be a highly irresponsible act that would threaten the authority's sterling bond rating. Andrews is one of the smartest elected officials in Maryland, and one who fully understands the importance of borrowing at the lowest possible rates, so his letter can be written off as mere posturing for the home folks.
Also jumping on the phony outrage badwagon is my good friend Adam Pagnucco of Marylland Politics Watch, who completely misses the point in his recent ICC rant. Pagnucco portrays the toll projections from the 2006 environmental impact statement as if they were a guarantee to the future users of the ICC. Sorry, that's not true. Those numbers were mere guesses, and those of us who were following the debate knew that.
Pagnucco repeats the mantra of the Montgomery elected officials that nobody will pay the toll rates approved for the ICC. But foes of the toll rates have nothing to base that on except for the gripes of those who would rather pay less. (Sure, and if the beer tax is raised a nickel, I'll stop drinking beer.)
The authority, on the other hand, hired a nationally respected consultant to gauge the level of demand for capacity on the ICC. Could the consultant be wrong? Perhaps. Then the tolls will have to come down. But if the market will support the higher rates, the authority would be remiss in charging anything less.
What is disappointing is to see Pagnucco suggesting that the General Assembly limit the independence of the transportation authority. Like Andrews, he should understand that the authority is not "accountable" to the voters for a good reason: Toll decisions are never popular. It will always be politically expedient to stiff the bond holders and to set artificially low tolls. That''s why the General Assembly was wiise to insulate the authority from politics. That's what helps keep Maryland's cost of borrowing low. The bond rating agencies are unequivocal on that point: They penalize toll authorities that are not independent.
This is serious business for the Baltimore region. The toll facilities allong the Interstate 95 corridor, as well as the Bay Bridge, will have heavy maintenance costs oover the next decade. That's going to require heavy borrowing. If the authority's credit rating is trashed by intervenionist politicians, the state will have to pay many millions of dollars in additional interest.
So what part of that don't they understand in Montgomery County?