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Getting There: Maryland's era of cheap road tolls is over

State's drivers enjoyed the party; now comes the hangover

By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

5:31 PM EDT, May 15, 2011

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Right up front, I must confess that I am part of the reason the Maryland Transportation Authority is considering a proposal to jack up tolls to dizzying heights.

You see, I'm a parasite on the system. Have been for years. And if you, too, commute into downtown Baltimore from south of the city, you may be a freeloader, too.

My daily commute from Howard County takes me up Interstate 95. I pay my way as far as Caton Avenue — in the form of gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, sales taxes and so on.

But once I cross the city line, I enjoy a free ride all the way to the end of Interstate 395 at Conway Street. The Maryland Transportation Authority maintains that stretch of highway even though it receives no tolls from it. Like the free stretch of the Beltway and I-95 between Dundalk and Aberdeen, it's paid for entirely by users of the harbor crossings, the Bay Bridge, the Kennedy Highway and other toll facilities.

That's just one of the anomalies driving the proposal outlined last week by the staff of the authority. It would, in effect, bring an end to the era of cheap tolls in Maryland. The cost of using the Bay Bridge would go from the $2.50 level set in 1975 to $8 in 2013. The cost of using the Key Bridge or harbor tunnels would go from $2 to $4.

While I can coast, my household doesn't emerge unscathed. My wife, who uses the Harbor Tunnel each day, enjoys an ultra-generous 80 percent discount from the current basic toll — reflecting the fact that commuter rates there have remained untouched since 1985. The proposal would decrease that discount at the same time the toll is going up. Her weekly cost of $4 would rise to $14. Thousands of Marylanders are in her shoes.

These are daunting increases, and it's up to the authority to justify them. Does the Bay Bridge commuter toll really need to double this year and increase an additional $3 in 2013? Let's see the numbers that support that proposition.

But there's no question that Maryland is due for a hefty increase in tolls. For many years, tolls here have remained cheap by national standards as the authority put off the day it would have to deal with the realities of increased borrowing and an aging system.

Now the bill's come due. The chickens have come home to roost. The piper must be paid. Choose your cliche, but freezing tolls is not an option.

First, there's inflation. Adjusted for consumer goods, it would take more than $10 to buy what $2.50 bought when the basic Bay Bridge toll was set at that level in 1975. And the cost of road-building materials — such as petroleum-based asphalt — has far outpaced the prices of consumer goods.

Consider also: The cost of maintaining 25-year-old infrastructure has escalated at more than the rate of consumer goods, but Maryland's toll facility infrastructure hasn't remained in its 20s. Much of it is now 50 to 70 years old, and the health care costs for a tunnel or bridge — just like those for a human body — increase exponentially with age.

On top of that, the authority has to maintain the debt service on two mega-projects still in the works: the Intercounty Connector and the Express Toll Lanes on Interstate 95. Various people have suggested lumping the toll increases on users of those facilities — but no can do. The bondholders who financed those projects were given a contractual promise that the entire Maryland toll system stood behind that debt. Eventual toll increases were part of that devil's bargain. We can't get our souls back now.

How'd we get here? It was a bipartisan effort. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. sold us on the notion that two big toll-financed projects would be relatively painless, and because we were in an era of cheap tolls, voters and legislators believed it. Gov. Martin O'Malley certainly didn't encourage the authority to come to grips with the cost issues before his re-election effort. Had he done so, the increases might have been more gradual, but voters probably would have clobbered him at the polls.

When the voters penalize candor and reward pandering, what are politicians going to give them?

This newspaper and others didn't exactly distinguish themselves either. The decision to raise tolls in 2003 set the stage for Maryland's commitment to the ICC and I-95 projects, but its long-term consequences went unexamined as journalists — myself included — fixated on the sexier topic of slot machines.

No doubt some politicians will thunder that the authority's independence should be curbed and the toll increases blocked, but that raises the specters of default and ruined credit. Telling the bond market to shove it is a bit like calling the boss a moron: It's deeply satisfying for a moment, but you've got to be prepared for long-term consequences.

Over the next few months we'll be hearing a lot of "facts" about tolls that are actually fantasies.

No, tolls aren't taxes. You pay directly for a service rendered — and there are alternatives, though they may be prohibitively inconvenient. No, there wasn't a promise that tolls would go away after the original construction costs were paid for. Maintenance, which in some cases is more expensive than the original construction, was always part of the deal.

Think about it: If the Bay Bridge were now toll-free, it would have to be maintained with gas taxes and other revenues that come largely out of the pockets of Marylanders. With tolls, at least we get to soak out-of-staters for a hefty share of the tab.

It's going to be a fascinating debate. Just remember one thing: Anyone who claims to have an easy answer is delusional.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com