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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.

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