Maryland tolls playing catch-up
Authority proposes sweeping increases
Board members gave preliminary approval Thursday to a plan that would raise rates at all of the state's toll bridges, tunnels and highways — in some cases doubling or even tripling what drivers pay today.
To cross the nearly mile-wide strait between Staten Island and Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, westbound cash customers must pay a $13 toll for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In Maryland, it's eastbound travelers who pay the toll on the 4.3-mile-long Bay Bridge. But they get off more easily — handing over the same $2.50 they've been paying since 1975.
Under the plan approved Thursday, that toll would rise to $5 on Oct. 1 and to $8 in July 2013. At the three Baltimore harbor crossings, cash customers who now pay $4 for a round trip would see the toll rise to $6 this year and to $8 two years from now. Other state toll facilities would reach the same level by 2013.
One reason for the sticker shock is that Maryland's base tolls have remained level since 2003, while maintenance costs and debt from two large projects have risen. The state raised tolls on trucks in 2009, but exempted two-axle vehicles from the increases.
Randolph P. Brown, acting executive secretary of the authority, told the board that his staff's recommended proposal would generate $77 million in new revenue in the 2012 budget year; $119 million in 2013; and $132 million in 2014. Board members said the revenue is needed to meet commitments to bondholders and to keep up with the mounting costs of maintaining an aging system.
Board members could make changes based on public hearings and written comments before taking a final vote in August. The increases don't require the approval of Gov. Martin O'Malley or the General Assembly.
The proposed toll increases come as no surprise to those familiar with the system. The state's Department of Legislative Services has been warning lawmakers for years that hefty rises were coming, largely to pay off the debts run up by the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector in suburban Washington and the $1 billion Express Toll Lane project on Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore.
"Increased reliance on debt to fund construction of a new toll facility and the major expansion of an existing toll facility will result in significantly higher debt service payments over the next 30 years," legislative analysts wrote early this year.
Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Road News, said many U.S. toll authorities held off on increases during the recession years. But as traffic recovers, he said, "a lot of them are saying we've got to get back to business again."
Samuel called the Bay Bridge, where a round trip now costs less than when the first span opened in 1952, "a real bargain."
But that would change.
"With these proposed tolls, they would certainly begin to be regarded as quite high," he said.
How high the tolls would be in relation to those of other states is difficult to say. It is difficult to compare one toll facility to another, especially in the case of tunnels and bridges, because each has a unique set of variables: when it was built, how long it is, engineering challenges unique to the location, climate and whether it's in an earthquake-prone region, among others.
The authorities that operate toll facilities nationwide have adopted radically different pricing schemes over the years. Some give a break to users of electronic tolling. Most offer discounts to regular commuters, though few are as generous as Maryland's. Others offer off-peak price breaks or impose surcharges at times of heavy tourist use — ideas Maryland's board has not embraced.
Under the board's proposal, Maryland would, for the first time, offer a price break to E-ZPass users. But only those with Maryland-based accounts would be eligible for the 10 percent discount, which is intended to reflect the lower cost of collecting money electronically and to provide an incentive to use the passes.
That's not as generous as the $3.40 break given to E-ZPass users on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but it would save 50 cents on a $5 Bay Bridge crossing.
The authority's proposal to increase its basic round-trip toll to $8 — eliminating current disparities among different toll facilities — would raise rates to the level cash customers now pay during peak hours on the George Washington, Goethals and Bayonne bridges and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels into New York.