Toll Hearing

Toll Hearing (June 28, 2011)

The Maryland Transportation Authority got another earful of fervent opposition to its proposed toll increases on the Susquehanna River bridges during a public hearing in Havre de Grace on Monday night.

The turnout was smaller than the pressing crowds at Perryville High School June 16, but still numbered more than 500 and came close to filling the gym in the Havre de Grace Activity Center.

Seventy people, as well as 13 public officials, were signed up to speak when the hearing began.

Karen Green, director of the activity center, said the venue had 1,013 seats in the gym and about another 200 in the cafeteria, which clearly seemed sufficient.

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"We have more space here than the high school," she said.

The hearing went until about 11:30 p.m., and Capt. Roy Mitchell of Havre de Grace police estimated 800 people attended.

Just before the meeting, Beverley Swaim-Staley, secretary of the state's transportation department and head of the MdTA, said she has been pleased with the hearings and was not surprised by the large crowds.

"I think that the turnout has been great in this area," she said. "I expected it and that's why we are having these public hearings."

Swaim-Staley would not comment on what MdTA officials have taken away from the hearings so far, except to say listening to the public has been useful.

"I think they have been very helpful," she said. "We are going to take back all the comments. We had some common themes that we have heard."

Swaim-Staley also said she was happy with the speakers who already testified at Perryville and was pleased with the choice of venue this time.

"I think that we tried to get some of the larger venues that we could," she said.

Officials and residents who spoke again made mention of the new InterCounty Connector, a toll highway in Montgomery County whose construction was launched during Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration and which many people see as the reason for the proposed toll increase.

Besides being a forum on the specifics of the MdTA proposal, the hearing became an outlet for anger atGov.Martin O'Malley's administration and government spending in general, with signs like "Owe Malley Says 'I Like Tolls, Taxes and Illegals'" in the audience.

Green, the activity center director, said she has terminal kidney disease and has to cross the bridge for dialysis regularly. She said if she were to miss two appointments, she would die.

"This toll kills me, literally, because I will not be able to pay the toll to afford my transportation," she said, explaining she has bought decals for several people who help take her across the bridge.

"I don't know how much longer I will be here, but I hope it will be as long as possible," she said, getting a standing ovation of support from the crowd.

Roxanne Sturdy, of Colora, said the toll shows the state continues to treat Cecil County like the redheaded stepchild.

"We are not a bunch of dumb hicks. We are intelligent, educated [people] who are tired of being referred to as 'Ceciltucky,'" she said, and expressed a popular view that a toll is the same as a tax. "No matter what you call it – fee, toll – it's all a tax. It's money out of our pocket and we can't afford it."

Several residents, however, made suggestions to the panel.