Responding to a public outcry, the Maryland Transportation Authority agreed Thursday to scale back a proposed toll hike on the Bay Bridge — one of several revisions to a hotly debated package of rate increases.
The authority board reached a consensus on raising the bridge toll to $4 in November and $6 by 2013. Members had planned originally to raise the toll to $8 by 2013.
Board members signaled approval of other toll changes around the state, and modifications intended to encourage motorists to use E-ZPass instead of cash.
A formal vote on the package is scheduled for next Thursday. The increases are not subject to review by the General Assembly or the governor.
The Bay Bridge toll, which is collected only from eastbound vehicles, has remained at $2.50 since the early 1970s — making the crossing a remarkable bargain compared with other toll bridges across the country.
But local residents turned out in droves at public hearings this summer to protest the proposed increases.
Others who would benefit from the changes agreed to by the board on Thursday include recreational users of small trailers, businesses such as landscapers, commercial truckers, residents of Southern Maryland and regular users of the U.S. 40 bridge over the Susquehanna River.
The board appears poised to carry through with its original plan to raise the basic round-trip rates at the three Baltimore Harbor crossings, on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and on the U.S. 40 bridge. Those rates would rise to $8 in 2013.
Unlike past rounds of increases, commuters will pay more, though not as much as originally envisioned.
While officials estimated the revisions would mean $30 million less in annual revenue, the package remains the largest set of toll increases in the state's history. Rates would go up at all of the authority's facilities, excluding the variable-toll Intercounty Connector.
The authority says it must raise tolls to meet its obligations to bond holders and to keep up with the escalating cost of maintaining an aging system. Many of the authority's original structures need extensive rehabilitation or outright replacement.
But after a summer of heated public hearings, the authority board looked for ways to make the increases more palatable — while also encouraging drivers to pay their tolls electronically rather than in cash.
Among the changes the board agreed upon was the elimination of a much-loathed $1.50 monthly E-ZPass fee for most motorists. Under the authority's plan, the fee would be waived for any pass user who made three or more trips through the agency's facilities in the preceding month.
The board left unchanged a provision that would give holders of Maryland-issued E-ZPasses a 10 percent discount each time a basic-rate toll is collected. The board also decided to cut the cost of new and replacement E-ZPass transponders from $21 to $9 starting Jan. 1.
Among the biggest winners in the revised package were users of the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, the span on U.S. 40 that connects Havre de Grace in Harford County with Perryville in Cecil County.
Those counties saw two of the most raucous public hearings this summer, with residents venting their anger over the authority's plan to scrap a locally popular decal system — which allows regular users to cross the Hatem Bridge for just pennies a trip — in favor of an E-ZPass scheme that would have included significant toll increases.
The board agreed Thursday to phase out the decal system by September 2012 but to offer local residents E-ZPass options with no transponder fees and a much smaller toll increase. The annual rate, which is now $10, would go up to $20 in 2013 instead of the previously proposed $72.
State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican, said she was "thrilled" with the changes affecting the Hatem Bridge.
"You can definitely tell that they listened to citizen input," said Jacobs, the Senate minority leader. "I think the people will be relieved."
Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat, said she and Del. David Rudolph, a Cecil County Democrat, had met with Gov. Martin O'Malley to enlist his help in persuading the board to revise its plans for the Hatem Bridge.
She said her research had uncovered bonding documents from many decades ago showing that the Hatem Bridge, which dates to 1940, is under no obligation to make money from local operations.
(Basic tolls on the bridge have been kept equal to those on the Kennedy Highway largely to discourage a diversion of long-distance traffic from Interstate 95.)
O'Malley wrote a letter to state Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley and other members of the authority board this week endorsing changes to the toll package including a longer transition period between the decals and an E-ZPass system on the bridge.
O'Malley also urged breaks for users of the Bay Bridge and the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge on U.S. 301 in Southern Maryland. The original proposal for the Nice Bridge would have raised the toll from $3 to $6 this year and to $8 in 2013. The revised proposal would make the tolls identical to those on the Bay Bridge.
Swaim-Staley said the board continues to believe it would be fairest to equalize the round-trip rates for all the fixed-toll facilities in the system. But in the case of the Bay Bridge, on which tolls have been held level for decades, she said the proposed increase to $8 was too much for the public to absorb.
"It was a huge leap to try to do that in one step," she said.
The revisions would extend relief to users of small trailers, such as those used to pull boats, horses and landscaping equipment. Because the toll-collection system is based on the number of axles on a vehicle, cars pulling relatively light trailers have long been lumped into the same category as mid-sized trucks.
The board determined that it was impractical to distinguish among various classes of vehicles with three or four axles and decided to extend a break to all in that group.
Members said the change, which would bring modest, short-term decreases on Jan. 1 before the next round of increases in 2013, would also help local companies that tend to use mid-sized trucks. Other changes increase the number of trucking companies that can benefit from rebate plans that refund a percentage of tolls for frequent users of the facilities.
One change that could relieve a persistent complaint is the decision to scrap the monthly fee on most E-ZPass accounts adopted in 2009. While the fee was initiated to recover the costs of keeping accounts open, many believed it discouraged motorists from signing up for the program.
Swaim-Staley said the revised plan was crafted to encourage frequent users to move to electronic tolling while discouraging people from acquiring the passes if they are not going to use them. She said such users cost the system money because it pays to keep each account open.
For other users, Swaim-Staley said, the fee was "an irritant."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun