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State backs off on plan to end cash toll at Hatem Bridge, legislators say

All-electric plan headed to more study under pending legislation

BY KRISHANA DAVIS and ALLAN VOUGHT, kdavis@baltsun.com and avought@theaegis.com

3:43 PM EDT, March 11, 2014

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Legislators from Harford and Cecil counties say they have a guarantee from state transportation officials that cash toll collection lanes will remain at the Route 40 Thomas Hatem Bridge for a minimum of two years.

The Maryland Transportation Authority has agreed to delay implementation of all-electronic tolling at the bridge while it continues to study its previously announced plan to do away with cash toll collections, State Sen. Nancy Jacobs said Friday.

"I appreciate the MdTA listening to my concerns and their cooperation and understanding of the needs of the citizens and businesses in Harford and Cecil County," Jacobs said in a news release.

Jacobs' announcement came after the Maryland House of Delegates on Thursday passed a bill that would require the MdTA to further study its plan to institute all-electric tolling at the Hatem Bridge and the majority of its other toll facilities, with an eye toward finding an alternative to penalizing drivers who don't use E-ZPass.

Harford County Dels. Wayne Norman, Susan McComas and Mary-Dulany James and Cecil County Del. David Rudolph introduced HB 389 requiring the MdTA to maintain at least one lane where motorists can pay tolls in cash at its toll facilities.

The heavily amended bill, which passed 136-0, sends the matter to study instead.

HB 389, which would still have to be passed by the Senate, also specifically prohibits MdTA from instituting all-electronic tolling at the Hatem Bridge before Jan. 1, 2016.

James said the study is a significant step forward, as it will delay electronic tolling for at least two years.

"It's a pretty big success given how much this effort to go all-electronic is in our faces," James said Monday. "We will continue to fight to represent our constituents wants and needs."

James said the legislators are going to take one success at a time. After the study is completed in two years, she said, if there is more conversation about converting to all-electronic, she will talk to the community to determine if it is something it's ready for and will support.

Rudolph called the bill a "significant victory" stating the MdTA needs to do a significant amount of work to address the concerns raised in Cecil County by the residents of Perryville and council members.

"At the end of the day, it is reasonable for us to ask them to spend more time studying this issue before having them do anything," Rudolph said Monday.

The biggest concerns about creating all-electronic tolls at the Hatem Bridge were difficulties it would cause the trucking industry, lack of interoperability with other states' systems and the administration fee.

"This is very determinantal for tourism between our two counties [Harford and Cecil] and businesses going back and forth between the two counties," Rudolph said.

He said he has been assured that while MdTA will be spearheading the study, stakeholders will be involved in the conversation to address concerns.

The Hatem Bridge, which crosses the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace in Harford County and Perryville in Cecil County, is one of two Susquehanna River toll bridges. The other is the Millard Tydings Bridge on I-95.

MdTA said last year it was considering removing the toll booths that are on the Perryville side of the Hatem Bridge, eliminating cash collections in favor of an all-electronic collection system based on E-ZPass. The move has upset residents and community leaders in the two communities linked by the bridge.

The Hatem Bridge would be the first MdTA toll facility to eliminate cash tolls, but the agency indicated it eventually hopes to do the same at most of its facilities.

As explained by the MdTA last fall and as noted by Jacobs in her news release, drivers who do not have E-ZPass would pay the toll at highway speed via "video tolling," where vehicle license plates are recorded and drivers are mailed a bill after each trip. That process is already used at the bridge for drivers who do not have a valid E-ZPass or cash.

"What many drivers don't understand is that the lack of an E-ZPass transponder results in the billing of 150 percent of the toll fee for those two-axle vehicles or $12 for each round-trip," Jacobs said.

Norman, who called the surcharge "outrageous," said last month it would affect all classes of vehicles and would particularly penalize occasional travelers from the south and west, such as someone trailering a boat to Elk Neck State Park.

The normal cash toll at the Hatem Bridge is $8; however, there is a special yearly toll rate of $20 for Hatem commuters only, which is collected via E-ZPass transponder. The yearly commuter toll went up from $10 last July, but not before considerable wrangling in 2011-12 between the MdTA and a united front of legislators, officials in Harford and Cecil counties, residents and business leaders, who fought the elimination of the former AVI sticker system for commuters.

"The citizens of Harford and Cecil County have been hard hit over the years with a number of toll increases on the Hatem Bridge," Jacobs said. "What makes this toll bridge unique is that area residents have no means in which to get to Havre de Grace or Perryville without being forced to use the Hatem Bridge or I-95, both which are toll roads."