Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun
11:51 PM EDT, October 31, 2011
Gene Egeberg of Bethesda, whose professional travel takes him across Baltimore Harbor several times a day, figures the new toll increases in Maryland will cost him $294 per year.
And in 2013, that will go up to $517.
After months of debate and contentious public hearings, the first phase of the largest toll hike in Maryland history became official at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. The increases affect seven of the state's eight toll highways, tunnels and bridges. Only the Intercounty Connector, a partly opened toll road that uses a variable pricing scheme based on traffic levels, is exempt.
Egeberg, a certified public accountant, said there will be occasions — if he isn't pressed for time — when he'll choose to make a slow crawl through the city rather than pay the higher toll at the Fort McHenry Tunnel.
"It's definitely going to make me think twice before I go through the tunnel," he said.
The Maryland Transportation Authority board voted in September to impose the toll increases, setting Nov. 1 as the effective date for the first round.
At the three Baltimore Harbor crossings — the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Harbor Tunnel and the Key Bridge — drivers as of Tuesday pay a $3 cash rate each way instead of the $2 they've been kicking in since 2003.
On the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, as Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore is known, the basic northbound toll has risen from $5 to $6. At the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Susquehanna River on U.S. 40, the same rate applies.
On the Bay Bridge, where a bargain $2.50 toll had been frozen in place since the 1970s, motorists' luck has run out. The rate is now $4 — collected eastbound only — at least sparing drivers the ordeal of fumbling with change. In Southern Maryland, users of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge found they, too, had to pay $4 instead of the previous $3 to make the southbound Potomac River crossing.
Tuesday's increases will be followed by a second round in July 2013 that will push the cost of a round trip at the harbor crossings, the Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Bridge to $8. The increases at the Bay and Nice bridges will be held to $6; the authority board decided an earlier plan to more than double the tolls at the two spans was too much, too soon.
The increases follow a national trend of rising tolls as bridge, tunnel and highway authorities struggle to cope with the problem of aging infrastructure. But that doesn't make the impact any easier to absorb here.
Tim Huss of Towson figures that the increase tips the balance in his decisions on a route to Severna Park.
"I'd go around by Catonsville way instead of going through Dundalk and Essex," he said – a longer and frequently more congested route, but toll-free.
Like a significant number of Marylanders, Huss suspected the toll increases are the result of the General Assembly's diversion of money from the Transportation Trust Fund to balance the state budget. But Harold Bartlett, executive secretary of the transportation authority, said that's not the case.
"We get no tax dollars at all, and we get no funds from the Transportation Trust Fund. Our entire budget is derived from the toll revenues we collect," he said.
Bartlett said the toll increases were driven by the increased cost of maintenance and by the construction of two expensive mega-projects: the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs and the $1 billion addition of express toll lanes to help relieve congestion on I-95 northeast of Baltimore.
"You have to generate enough revenue to pay the debt," Bartlett said.
The express toll lanes won't begin kicking in revenue until they open in 2014. But the ICC, which has been partly open since February, will begin collecting significantly more revenue Dec. 5, two weeks after the Nov. 22 opening of the section connecting the Interstate 270 corridor with I-95.
The road will be toll-free from its opening day through Dec. 4. After that, Bartlett said, tolls will be collected, bringing in enough money to cover the highway's operating expenses.
The tolls from that 18-mile highway won't be enough to pay for the cost of building it, however.
Bartlett noted that the authority pools the revenue from all its facilities so that dollars collected in other places are helping to pay off the loans for the ICC. Similarly, fares from the McHenry tunnel are used to shore up the eroding foundations of the Millard E. Tydings and Hatem Memorial bridges – two of the expensive maintenance jobs the authority is undertaking.
"We're putting a lot of money into the Hatem and Tydings for underwater repairs that are very expensive," Bartlett said.
Egeberg finds that system objectionable — even though it's enshrined in all-but-unbreakable bond covenants with the state's debt holders.
"The Harbor Tunnel should be paid for by the Harbor Tunnel," he said. "I don't think they should be mixing and matching."
Bartlett said that even with the increases, Maryland's tolls are not unreasonable. He noted that users of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York pay $13 for a shorter crossing than the Bay Bridge.
"I believe we're still very much in the competitive range compared with other toll facilities around the country," Bartlett said.
For truckers, the day of reckoning will come two months later. In an effort to cushion the blow to the industry, the authority delayed the imposition of truck toll increases until Jan. 1 so companies could factor the higher costs into contracts that coincide with the calendar year.
But Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said that's a small consolation.
"It really takes one of the larger national companies to get out there and increase rates," he said.
Campion said long-distance truckers are already struggling to cope with toll increases in states such as Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. For the short-haul truckers who serve the Port of Baltimore, he said, the increased cost of a single round trip through the Baltimore tunnels can add up to more than $3,000 a year.
Part of the problem, Campion said, is that the authority put off increases so long that when it did act, the hikes were "pretty astronomical."
Paul Kelly, the association's chairman and vice president of A&S Intermodal Division, said the two phases of toll increases will increase the cost of a round trip for a five-axle truck through the harbor tunnels from $28 to $48. He said his company already pays about $240,000 in tolls each year. "Now we're talking about a half-million dollars," he said. "Where are we going to get that money from?"
Kelly said the authority picked a terrible time to impose the increases.
"They don't recognize that the recession is not over," he said. His company will recover some of the money from customers, Kelly said, but not all of it.
Economist Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group in Baltimore, said the toll increase will have a negative economic impact on some communities that depend heavily on a particular toll facility. But statewide, he said, the economy can likely absorb the hike.
"I do not think it'll keep anyone from going to Ocean City," he said. "I do not think it'll keep anyone from Kent Island from taking a job in Annapolis."
Among the new tolls
•Fort McHenry Tunnel, Harbor Tunnel and Key Bridge: $3, up from $2
•Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore: $6, up from $5.
•Susquehanna River bridge on U.S. 40: $6, up from $5.
•Chesapeake Bay Bridge: $4, up from $2.50.
Other highlights of toll package:
•10 percent discount off cash rates for E-ZPass use (Except for ICC)
•$1.50-a-month Maryland E-ZPass fee waived for accounts used to pay three or more in-state tolls previous month.
•--Commuter tolls increase from 40 cents to 75 cents at Harbor crossings.
•--Commuter rates go from 80 cents to $1 at JFK Highway and Hatem Bridge.
•--Bay Bridge commuter rate stays at $1 until July 2013.
•--At Bay Bridge, 50 percent discount for 10 trips within 90 days Sunday through Thursday.
•--Cost of Hatem Bridge T-series tickets to rise by 50 percent.
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun