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Gansler supports commuter discount on ICC

CommutingElectionsDebt MarketLoansCredit and DebtDouglas F. Gansler

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, running for the Democratic nomination for governor, proposed Friday that the state give commuters a break on the tolls on the Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs.

Gansler's campaign issued a statement and a video in which the candidate asserted that ICC traffic and revenue are well below projections because of high tolls. According to the Gansler camp, usage is 20 percent lower than expected and revenues are 20-45 percent below projections.

The attorney general said his plan for a 50 percent discount for commuters who make at least 15 trips a month on the road would bring in more revenue than the current tolling scheme.

Except for a short segment still under construction between Interstate 95 and U.S. 1, the $2.4 billion ICC opened in 2011 -- connecting I-95 with the Interstate 270 corridor in Montgomery County. Construction was largely financed by higher tolls on other facilities run by the Maryland Transportation Authority such as the three Baltimore Harbor crossings.

The ICC -- also known as Maryland 200 -- was the first Maryland toll facility to offer variable pricing at different times of day to reflect congestion levels. The idea behind the plan was that ICC tolls would remain high enough to avoid congestion and keep traffic flowing freely at all times.

Since the ICC opened, many Washington-area commuters have complained that the tolls are too high. Unlike other state toll facilities such as the Bay Bridge and harbor crossings, it does not offer a commuter plan. The ICC was not affected by the most recent round of toll increases that took effect last July. Among the reasons given for the increases at the other facilities was the need to keep up debt service on the ICC.

Last year, the transportation authority conducted a study in which it examined the effect of various levels of ICC toll cuts -- though not Gansler's specific plan. It found that whether the cut was one-quarter, one-third or in half, it would result in a loss of revenue ranging from 14 percent to 35 percent.

The authority's financial figures from the budget year that ended June 30 appear to contradict Gansler's assertion that revenue is 20-45 percent short of projection. The agency reported that its ICC revenue of $39.59 million was slightly more than the projected $39.56 million.

The agency said last fall that the ICC was carrying about 40,000 vehicles a day and was growing at an average rate of 2.6 percent each month.

Cheryl Sparks, spokeswoman for the authority, said the traffic is in line with projections for this point in the project. "We're not through the ramp-up period yet," she said. Sparks said a cut in commuter tolls would also run contrary to the long-term goal of maintaining a congestion-free road.

Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for the Gansler campaign, said the authority had lowered its projections to make its traffic results look better.

"They're playing with numbers again," she said. Hill said she was not familiar with the studies showing ICC toll cuts would cost the state revenue but dismissed their reliability.

"There's nowhere to go but up," she said.

The difference appears to be explained by which round of projections are being used. The Gansler campaign is basing its assertions on numbers forecast by the state in 2005, when the project was still in planning and toll rates had not been set. The projections the authority cited were arrived at much later and took into account the effects of the economic recession.

Sparks said toll revenue is pooled among the authority's eight toll facilities and used for operations, maintenance and payment of bonds. She said a loss of revenue at one facility could result in delays of preservation work throughout the system.

Sparks said the authority is required to maintain its revenue at a level of two times its debt service. However, she said ICC revenue cuts of the size projected in the study would not put the authority in danger of violating those agreements.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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CommutingElectionsDebt MarketLoansCredit and DebtDouglas F. Gansler
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