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Lower tolls didn't cost Maryland as much as expected, transportation secretary says

Lowering tolls didn't cost Maryland as much as expected, according to the state transportation secretary.

The amount of money the state collects at the Bay Bridge fell by more than $28.1 million last year, after Gov. Larry Hogan reduced toll rates.

That's a 35 percent drop. But a 9.4 percent increase in highway traffic helped defray that dip, according to figures released by the Maryland Transportation Authority. Revenue increases at other toll facilities helped keep the overall drop to $5.1 million, or less than 1 percent.

The MdTA said the tolls still exceeded the revenue forecast for 2016. The tolls were raised in the 2012 and 2014 fiscal years to finance construction projects.

Money from tolls supports the transportation authority and its construction projects. Some have expressed concern that the toll reductions would mean less money for infrastructure projects such as the planned replacement of the Harry W. Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland.

But State Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn says 13.5 million more toll transactions in 2016 buoyed revenue $62 million higher than expected.

"We still had a drop, but less than we had thought," he said.

The Hogan Administration used updated toll projections, along with what Rahn called "a pretty complicated financial package," including refinancing and reissuing state bonds, to allot more than $250 million over the next five years toward a replacement for the Nice Bridge. Construction is scheduled to begin by 2020, and the bridge is expected to open in 2023.

"Obviously I'm pleased that we have moneys available to undertake the construction," Rahn said. "I wasn't sure we could do it."

When Hogan reduced the fees in 2015, he said the move would save Marylanders $54 million per year. He called it "our largest tax relief package to date."

The state's toll facilities generated more than $157 million last year, the MdTA said. A record 81 percent of tolls were collected electronically.

The Bay Bridge — officially the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge — carries U.S. 50/301 across the Chesapeake Bay. It saw the biggest dip in toll revenue in 2016, despite recording 416,000 more crossings than in the prior year.

The Nice Bridge was the only other state toll facility to see revenue fall last year, according to the MdTA. The bridge, which spans the Potomac River from Newburg to Dahlgren, Va., saw a decline of less than 1 percent.

The Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore, which carries Interstate 95 under the Patapsco River between Locust Point and Canton, recorded 42.5 million transactions to generate $188.7 million, more than 29 percent of the state's toll revenue and the most of any of the state's toll facilities. Revenue increased by 2.9 percent from the previous year, the MdTA reported.

The John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, the 50-mile stretch of I-95 from the Baltimore line to Delaware, collected $168.9 million — more than a quarter of the state's toll revenue — from 15.2 million travelers.

The Harbor Tunnel, which carries Interstate 895 under the Patapsco River, generated $88.8 million from 28.3 million drivers. The Francis Scott Key Bridge, which carries the Baltimore Beltway over the Patapsco River, collected $42.7 million from 11.2 million drivers.

More than 8 million people used the I-95 Express Toll Lanes, the 8-mile stretch of separated lanes between Baltimore and White Marsh, generating $11.4 million in toll revenue. (While it's part of the JFK Memorial Highway, the MdTA reports it separately.)

The Intercounty Connector, which links I-270 and I-370 in Montgomery County to I-95 and U.S. 1 in Prince George's County, collected $59.3 million from about 30 million trips. The ICC's revenue increased nearly 6 percent, or $3.3 million.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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