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June 2, 2011

Authority board formally proposes toll increase plan

The Maryland Transportation Authority board gave its preliminary approval today to the most sweeping package of toll increases in its history, saying higher rates are unavoidable because of the need to pay off debt and maintain an aging system,

The board’s unanimous vote moves the proposal moves to a series of nine public hearings across the state. It also triggers a 60-day public comment period after which the board will weigh possible changes and take a final vote. The first phase of the proposal is expected  go into effect Oct. 1, with a second to follow in July 2013.

Under the proposal, the cost of a round-trip at the three Baltimore Harbor crossings – the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge -- would go from $4 to $6 round trip in October. Tolls there, unlike at most Maryland facilities,  are collected in each direction.

Tolls on the John F. Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Bridge would go from $5 to $6 in October. Tolls on the Bay Bridge would go from $2.50 to $5 then. Tolls on the Nice Bridge, U.S. 301 in Southern Maryland, would go to $5.

The second phase two years from now would standardize round-trip tolls to $8 at all of the facilities except the Intercounty Connector, where the basic tolls were only recently imposed and where the state plans to eventually base charges on the level of congestion.

The authority is an independent agency governed by a board appointed by the governor. Its decisions on tolls do not require the approval of Gov. Martin O’Malley or the General Assembly.

The proposal developed by the staff and formally proposed by the board makes extensive changes to Maryland’s toll collection system. Among its provisions are one that would:

--Give users of E-ZPass a 10 percent discount off the cash toll rate to reflect the lesser cost of collecting money electronically and to encourage use of the passes. Thus, if the Bay Bridge toll goes to $5 in October as proposed, the E-ZPass rate would be $4.50.

--Scale back Maryland’s commuter discounts, which are now among the most generous in the country, to rates closer to the national norm. Under the proposal, commuters rates would be lowered to 70 percent of the cash rate in October and 65 percent in 2013. Thus, a commuter using one of the Harbor crossings in both directions, would see a daily increase from 80 cents now to $1.80 in October and to $2.80 in 2013.

--Eliminate the decal system at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge (U.S. 40 at the Susquehanna River), under which frequent users can pay $10 for unlimited use for a year. The authority would replace the decals with an E-ZPass-based system under which users would pay $36 a year starting Oct. 1 and $72 a year in 2013.

--Replace the current $3 fee for mailing notices of tolls due with a 25 percent surcharge on the applicable toll. That surcharge would apply to vehicles that use the ICC without E-Zpasses and get a camera-generated bill in the mail, as well as to users of other toll facilities who go through E-ZPass lanes and whose payments don’t register. The effect would be to lower the surcharge on drivers of personal vehicles and increase them for large trucks, which pay higher per-axle tolls.

--Abolish a current shopper plan, in place on the Bay Bridge only, charging a reduced rate for 10 trips within 180 days.

Members of the board said they are reluctant to raise tolls but must do so in order to keep up payments on its debt obligations and to maintain an aging and increasingly costly infrastructure. In addition to expensive rehabilitation projects at many of its facilities, the authority must raise money to pay for the construction costs of the $2.6 billion ICC and the $1 billion Express Toll Lane project on Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore.

“Not one of us wants to raise tolls by a single dime, but we have no choice,” said member Richard C. Mike Lewin.


But the leading General Assembly critic of the toll authority, Sen. E. J. Pipkin, called the increases “unnecessary” and mocked the contention by board members that they need to educate the public about the reasons for the increases.


“I think the board needs to be educated that a 300 percent toll increase is outrageous . . and incredibly out of touch with the struggles of working families today,” the Eastern Shore Republican said.


Pipkin said he will reintroduce previously defeated legislation that would require that any toll increases be approved by the General Assembly.

Opponents of such a measure contend it would drive up the authority’s borrowing costs by reducing the confidence of bond buyers that their loans would be repaid.

Posted by Michael Dresser at 1:48 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: On the roads
        

Comments

a 60-day public comment period after which the board will weigh possible changes and take a final vote

REALLY?! When it comes to money I highly doubt they will consider what the public wants or needs.

I honestly do not know how the leaders of this state think that we can continue to take these hits. This will kill commuters. We just recently got hit with sales tax increase (5%-6%), then higher alcohol taxes, possibly higher gas taxes, gas and food prices through the roof, many gov't workers in a pay freeze and now they want to hit us again. It's beyond ridiculous. It's criminal!!! Why can't they just raise the commuter rate like 10 cents each way or something reasonable like that? What a bunch of dolts!! Can't wait to retire and move out of this state.

It is about time that the rates for EZ Pass were set below the cash rate. I support that move entirely.

What a RIPOFF for EZPASS users !!! This is more than what was proposed before.
I thought the MD GOVT was trying to get MORE people to use EZPASS so all the Hopkins graduates that work the toll booths won't have to handle money (counting and recounting the 2$) like it's their 1st time .. every time.
Most of the EZpass users will be finding better routes then the tunnels !!

O'Malley screwing working families yet again

Really??? This is totally ridiculous! EZpass users should have NO increase and any other user of the tolls should PAY the increases. I have to pay a fee every month to use my EZpass and it should have cut costs at the toll booth? Has it? I highly doubt it. This is just another TAX that indirectly O'Liar probably pushed. Give Marylanders a break. I'll be moving out when I retire and it won't be soon enough.

I live just south of all these tolls in Baltimore County. When I travel north to visit my elderly mother and sibling in New England, all the tolls are now about $80 total. That would be MD, DE, NJ, road and bridge tolls and the Tappen Zee Bridge across the Hudson. But just four years ago, it was more like $40 and even less before that.
The tunnel and bridge tolls that go under Baltimore rather than over it on the beltway discourage me from taking that route. I even go out of my way up into PA to save some money when I drive up. The distance to Southern New England is identical and in some ways, more pleasant.
I also don't shop or do any business on the other side of the bay. The toll increases the cost for me. For example: I go to the College Park Ikea instead of the Baltimore Ikea as well as other stores or restaurants.
I always assumed that the MTA had built in repair, maintenance, and other costs into *existing* tolls? Why would they *not* have done this over the decades? In not doing so, this possible toll increase is sudden and unfair to residence of the area that have no other choice but to take the tolls across the harbor and bay for jobs and services.
One possible alternative for local travelers the MTA should consider:
The MTA should permit residents of areas near the city like Catonsville, Arbutus, Northern Anne Arundel county, etc. to apply for a reduced toll or no toll permit. This way, if we need to cross the bay, we can do so cheaply or for free, to go to businesses or to travel North.
It is the geography of the city and the bay that is a problem. If this was the SF/Bay Area, I would not suggest this. That bay is big and uniform. Population is all around it and services are all around it. But all roads converge on Baltimore. One has no choice but to take a bridge or tunnel to go to the northern part of the city or state or to head north. By letting locals who need to transit the bay do so with little impact should help the economy. For a family or truck driving from Silver Springs or Virginia to Albany or Maine, this would not make sense. They are truly "transiting" the region and paying a toll. But locals LIVE in the area. Existing tolls are high enough. Raising them effectively creates a barrier in the state, city, and region economically and physically.
The MTA is essentially proposing to make the wall higher and harder to climb for those on each side of the bay.

How could anything like this double in value in 21 months? The toll increase for the harbor bridges and tunnels is enormous. The increase for i95 is equally absurd.

If the MTA made a genuine all out effort to increase and make dead simple mass transit options to go from south to north and east to west across the harbor and up the i95 corridor, people could understand these increases. But the state and the MTA have very poorly planed our transportation future and are dumping these increases on the citizens of Maryland.

In Europe, there are tolls. But there are also extensive transportation alternatives that *work* and are affordable. If Maryland and other eastern states raise tolls, they need to begin a massive planning overhaul for this important economic transportation corridor so that people who cannot afford the hundreds of dollars it will soon cost to transit the i95 corridor can easily take other transit options like local high speed rail between DC and Baltimore, and long distance high speed rail up and down the east coast.

Have anyone looked at the locations of the public hearings?
For a tax/toll that effects the entire State they certainly do not want state wide opinions of their decision.

Gotta pay the bills.
(but maybe shouldn't have built the ICC,eh?.)

This newspaper is in on it with the GOVT!!! How is this not the top story online and in print??? Who the cares about the Bromo tower when they're raising taxes again??? (A toll is a form of tax) This state is sooo shady. I really hope people decide to stop voting according to party and get ALL NEW BLOOD IN OFFICE this fall...

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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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