There's a (thin) silver lining in bridge toll proposal
Amid all the bad news contained in the Maryland Transportation Authority's staff's original proposal for toll increases in October and in 2013, there's a nugget of a good idea: Equalizing the toll burden of the two main routes to the Eastern Shore.
Currently there's a perverse incentive to use the congested bottleneck that is the Bay Bridge. The toll for a round trip there is $2.50, while the cost of using the Kennedy Highway to get to a northern route through Delaware is $5.
The increases proposed by the authority staff would bring the Bay Bridge and Kennedy Highway tolls both to $8 in 2013.
Many people in Baltimore aren't aware that they can get to certain Delmarva destinations -- the Delaware beaches or northern Ocean City -- in about the same time by using the Bay Bridge or by going around the head of the bay. When the bridge is congested, the northern route will often take less time. But for many in Baltimore, the Bay Bridge is the only way they know -- plus it's cheaper.
If the change were adopted as proposed --- and that's still a big if -- there would be less of an economic incentive to favor the Bay Bridge. The more traffic can be diverted from there, the less it will be congested and the longer Maryland can get by without an enormously expensive and environmentally damaging replacement crossing.
Now equalizing Maryland tolls doesn't make things even-up. Some of the faster routes to the Shore via Elkton involve Delaware tolls. (There are free routes through Delaware to the beaches but you have to be pretty adamant about avoiding tolls to take the trouble.) Still, anything the tilts the scale away from the bridge is a good idea.
Obviously those for whom the bridge is the only practical alternative -- such as Washington-area residents -- won't see it that way. But they would at least benefit from sharing the bridge with fewer Baltimoreans.
Another effect of higher Bay Bridge tolls could be to make people think twice about the idea of living on the Shore and working on the western side of the bridge. This might be bad news for current commuters, Shore developers and merchants, but it could be a boon to those who want to preserve the rural character of the region.
This effect can and probably will be exaggerated. The proposed increase would add $9 to the weekly cost of commuting over the bridge -- enough to tip the balance for a few people but not many. Still, the old rate was virtually a subsidy for Shore sprawl. An increase after 36 years would serve notice that the Bay Bridge is no longer a sacred cow.
Some current commuters might be motivated enough to switch to commuter buses -- which could take some single-passenger vehicles off the bridge. It would be even better for current bridge users if higher truck tolls created an incentive to try another route. The fewer tractor-trailers, the less wear and tear on the bridge.
Another positive aspect of the proposal is that it would bring the toll on the bridge to an even dollar amount -- $5 in October and $8 in 2013 -- instead of the current $2.50. By cutting down on the amount of fumbling with change, the increase would at least speed traffic flow through the cash tollbooths.
These are some rather thin silver linings on a cloudy toll scenario, but you've got to take your consolation where you can find it.