More than 1,000 people from the northeast corner of the state came out Monday evening to tell state officials not to raise the toll on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which they say connects them to their churches, shopping centers, doctors and friends on the other side of the Susquehanna River.
The toll rate is slated to rise from $10 a year for area residents who sign up for a special decal to $36 in October and $72 in 2013. It's part of a larger plan to raise maintenance and repair money from tolls across the state for bridges, tunnels and roads.
"Stick with $10!" demanded Hilda Joy Mathis of Havre de Grace, who came to a public hearing held by the Maryland Transportation Authority, one of many hearings planned ahead of the increases.
She was joined by her neighbor Sarah Morris, who said the historic hikes were too much for many people to handle in a tough economy. She said, "I understand they need to go up, but I'd like to see a smaller increase and none of those on-going fees."
Morris and many others objected to the state authority's plan to swap out the decals locals have used since 1976 for an EZPass, which comes with monthly fees and a one-time cost for the transponders.
Authority representatives and state Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley, who chairs the board, were booed as they attempted to explain the need for the toll hikes.
The bridge, officials said, is 71 years old and requires continual up-keep. Its toll booths took in $12 million in revenues in the last three years but $74 million was spent on operations, re-decking and repairs.
The rate increases are expected to bring in $77 million in new revenue in the 2012 budget year and $119 in 2013. The size of the package is necessary, though the details could be changed as a result of the public hearings and comments, officials said.
At the three Baltimore harbor crossings, the tolls are slated to go from $2 to $3 in October and $4 in 2013. The Bay Bridge toll would go from $2.50 to $5 in October and $8 in 2013. Tolls on the John F. Kennedy Highway — a section a I-95 that begins at the end of the Harbor tunnel at the Baltimore City line — and the Hatem bridge would go from $5 to $6 and $8.
Tolls at the two tunnels and the Key Bridge are collected in both directions, while most other tolls are collected in only one direction. The tolls are only used for the roads, bridges and tunnels under the control of the authority, which also receives no tax money or federal aid.
"It's never a good time for toll increases," Swaim-Staley said before the meeting in Havre de Grace began. "We need to reinvest in these facilities. We're trying to keep community rates low."
But those at the hearing didn't think they were being kept low enough. Many believed their toll money was being used to offset the price tag for the Inter-County Connector, a new highway in the Washington suburbs.
Several state lawmakers representing the region fueled the crowd's ire and said they would try to stop the rate hikes.
Del. Glen Glass, a Cecil and Harford County Republican, handed a petition opposing the toll increases with 1,100 signatures to Swaim-Staley.
"People are hurting all over the state," he said. "Please don't do this. Don't raise the tolls."
Sen. Nancy Jacobs, also a Cecil and Harford Republican and minority leader, said the plan would mean a 300 percent increase for those in her district, yet there are more seniors and unemployed living in the area than in the more well off Washington suburbs.
"We're not expecting handouts," she said. "We're expecting fairness."