Many public and business leaders on Maryland's Eastern Shore have expressed concern recently about the negative effects of the Maryland Transportation Authority's proposed Bay Bridge toll increases. Any increases, they argue, will be detrimental to state tourism, especially east of the Chesapeake Bay. However, this position fails to consider that the MdTA revenue discussions have produced a timely opportunity to boost intrastate tourism and commerce. This desirable end can be achieved through the creation of a significant toll discount for E-ZPass account holders.
The greatest obstacle to weekend travel in Maryland is traffic. Nowhere in the state is congestion more of a problem than in the areas approaching the Bay Bridge. Especially problematic is eastbound bridge traffic, which deters travel to the Eastern Shore. Many Marylanders are forced to weigh the benefits of prospective travel against the likelihood of being ensnared by lengthy backups created by tollbooth-induced congestion. Envisioning such a scenario doubtlessly thwarts some from leisure travel. After all, at the end of a workweek, who wants to sit in traffic?
The end of state subsidies for E-ZPass accounts in 2009 rendered the goal of alleviating bridge congestion less attainable. Granted, only a very small percentage of participants canceled their existing accounts after monthly account maintenance fees were imposed. Perhaps more significant is the effect that the new fees had on the likelihood of new accounts being opened.
Without cost-free accounts, many casual Bay Bridge travelers lack an incentive to participate. Some dismiss the significance of such people not participating in the E-ZPass program, arguing that casual bridge users are not the drivers who cause traffic backups. On the contrary, it is precisely these casual users who create backups: tens of thousands of them arriving at the Bay Bridge at peak weekend travel times.
But now, an incentive to participate in the program can be created. Incorporating a significant toll discount for E-ZPass account holders would make many casual Bay Bridge users more inclined to sign up. Attracting new accounts will be crucial to efforts aimed at reducing bridge congestion in the future. The current proposal of a 10 percent discount will not suffice; the cost reduction needs to be substantial to be effective as an incentive. More Marylanders must be led to recognize the merits and returns of participation in the program so that the inherent barriers to crossing the Chesapeake Bay can be broken down. A failure to do so will perpetuate — and perhaps worsen — the bottleneck effect created by collecting tolls at the Bay Bridge.
The question of how to structure toll increases has implications that extend far beyond revenue issues, and MdTA and other state leaders would be wise to keep an eye on the bigger picture. Any revenue lost to a significant E-ZPass discount would be countered by statewide economic gains of far greater magnitude due to increases in commerce.
Tourism is Maryland's fourth-largest industry, and it is precisely the sort of economic engine that should be fueled. The state's geography and the structure of toll collection at the Bay Bridge present formidable barriers to in-state travel on weekends. At hand is the opportunity to alleviate the traffic congestion pressures that stymie travel-related commerce. Easing these structural constraints will produce an atmosphere more conducive to in-state travel, better enabling Maryland to achieve tourism-related economic growth.
Joseph L. Kroart III is vice president of Ocean Gallery Fine Art Centers Inc. in http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.