Maryland tolls: good politics, bad policy

When the Maryland Transportation Authority floated a package of toll increases that seemed staggering to many motorists — a jump from $2.50 to $8 on the Bay Bridge by 2013, for example — state officials insisted that the higher rates were necessary to service the bonds for all the bridges, roads and tunnels the agency manages, and to maintain, repair and replace those aging facilities.

Last week, the agency preliminarily agreed to scale back the increase on the Bay Bridge, the Hatem Bridge between Cecil and Harford counties and the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland. The proposal includes breaks for E-ZPass users and a few other adjustments, all of which will reduce the amount of revenue the authority collects by $30 million a year compared with the original proposals. But, the agency says, that reduction won't hinder in any way its ability to pay the bonds or to maintain, repair and replace the facilities.


A spokesman for the transportation department says the original proposal was designed to provide the agency with flexibility to modify its plans based on input from the public hearings it's been holding (which were quite heated) and from a public comment period. That's a nice way of saying that officials high-balled the amount of money they were looking for so they could grease up some squeaky wheels when people, inevitably, complained.

It's a neat trick, politically. It makes people feel like they were heard, and it makes the governor and other elected officials who implored the agency to scale back its plans look powerful. But it raises some questions.

Is the new proposal really the fairest way to collect the revenue the state needs, or is it just a reflection of who complained the loudest? We're sympathetic, for example, to the regular Hatem Bridge users who would have seen a massive increase in their annual costs. But what about the much larger number of people who use the Baltimore harbor crossings every day but who didn't pitch as much of a fit?

And is this new plan really the state's bottom line? Could Maryland commuters have gotten an even better deal if they had complained a little louder? What if nobody had complained much? Would the state have just pocketed the extra cash for a rainy day?

The way the state handled the situation may work for used-car dealers, but it doesn't do much to foster trust in government.

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