When the Maryland Transportation Authority board met in a work session last week to hammer out the final details of what is expected to be the largest toll increase in the state's history, there were only two people there besides members and staff.
One was a reporter who pretty much had to be there to do his job. The other was a state senator who didn't have to be there to do hers.
That legislator was Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents Harford and Cecil counties — two jurisdictions that have a huge stake in the outcome of the board's deliberations.
Some of Jacobs' constituents might be disappointed to hear she didn't show up to rant and rave and denounce the board for even considering a toll increase. Rather, Jacobs was clearly there to listen, to learn about the hard choices the board faces and to do a little cordial, reasoned advocacy for her people.
It was working. It was clear that board members welcomed her attendance, admired her diligence and appreciated being treated with a measure of respect after having been verbally assaulted in public hearings by some of Jacobs' grandstanding colleagues.
Neither Jacobs nor any other legislator is going to block hefty toll increases from going into effect. The numbers say they are needed — not for new projects but for paying old bills and maintaining the infrastructure we have.
But if the final package that emerges from the board's deliberations is a bit less onerous for such customers as trailer owners and the users of the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, it will have a lot more to do with the advocacy of Jacobs than the political posturing that went on at the public meetings in Perryville, Stevensville and Havre de Grace.
One of the board members, the Rev. William C. Calhoun Sr., was overheard after last week's meeting telling Jacobs: "You are respected very highly. I really appreciate that you weren't coming to campaign."
Other board members credited Jacobs and Del. David Rudolph, a Cecil County Democrat, with bringing them concrete ideas for softening the effect of the toll increase rather than playing a blame game.
The people who serve on the board are not elected and — with the exception of the state transportation secretary — not paid anything more than their expenses. A majority of them were appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley but two have served under chief executives of both parties.
Board members said they repeatedly heard from angry speakers at the hearings — some of them elected officials — charging that the meetings were a sham and that the authority's decision was already cast in stone.
But what Jacobs and I saw the board doing last week was a painstaking search for ways to ease the burden on people who had made a good case that they deserved a break.
Several members said they learned a lot from the Perryville and Havre de Grace meetings about the Hatem Bridge's integral importance to the two communities.
Many of those residents are deeply aggrieved that the authority has proposed an end to the system under which decal holders have been able to use the U.S. 40 bridge to cross the Susquehanna as often as they want for $10 a year. The proposal to switch these users to the E-ZPass system and make their sweet deal a little less sugary — $72 a year for unlimited use in 2014 — has brought deep dismay to many folks in Harford and Cecil. They want things to remain just as they are.
The board spent last week's meeting groping for a way to make the change a little less abrupt for the Hatem users. They don't seem likely to keep the decals. Acting Executive Secretary Randolph P. Brown told the board that the current system is dangerous for drivers and has led to injuries to employees. Furthermore, he said, the technology is obsolete and finding spare parts is difficult.
These are the kind of serious matters the board has to weigh. The way they left it was to ask the authority's lawyers to research just how far they can go in extending local preferences. Clearly, they want to give the Hatem users something.
Other groups who could benefit from changes are motorists who attach trailers to their personal cars and truckers who are frequent users of the toll facilities. There's a strong board consensus that trailer users are treated unfairly by a system that counts axles rather than measuring weight. And the board has heard loud and clear from the General Assembly that they'd like to see some relief for local truckers, who were hit hard by a 2009 toll increase that largely spared others.
It isn't easy though. Board members heard from the staff that the technology used by almost all toll authorities nationwide counts axles to assess tolls. It looked as if the board may find that the only way to give a break to the guy pulling a boat is to extend relief to all the vehicles with three or four axles — a proposition that would cut into the revenue needed to pay the bills by an estimated $10 million a year. It's not an easy call, because the more help they give one group, the less they can give to others.
Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley, who chairs the board, said the board may have about 15 percent wiggle room in the proposal it put before the public in June. The bond payments are fixed in stone, she said, but some maintenance projects could possibly be stretched out.
The challenge before the board is how to apportion that 15 percent in the fairest way possible. It isn't easy, and it's all about the details.
That's why, when it comes to the crunch, Jacobs will have an edge in representing her constituents. She was there — mastering the nitty-gritty and rebuilding bridges some of her colleagues have burned. Republican or Democrat, that's how the job is done.