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Make toll increases fair to rural Marylanders

Justice SystemLaws and Legislation

We Marylanders understand that there are two types of people in this state: those who make the laws, and those who are forced to follow them.

The recent proposal by the Maryland Transportation Authority to raise tolls hits hard in all areas of the state, but hardest hit are Cecil and Harford counties. These two counties are remarkably intertwined; you don't realize how much one county depends on the other unless you actually live there. I hope to illustrate that the percentage of the increase these two counties will bear is far greater than that of any toll in Maryland and also requires an unending investment in the state's E-ZPass system.

The Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River on Route 40 took in $12 million over the past three years. During this time, there has been a free decal renewal system in place that makes this an artificially low number to base any fiscal decision on. During that same period, $74 million was spent in maintaining the bridge. This number is artificially inflated, as the bridge was undergoing massive redecking. If properly amortized (let's say, $74 million once every 20 years), we are talking about a real maintenance cost of less than $12 million over that same three-year period. The fact that the MdTA has grossly manipulated the financial facts while making its argument suggests to me that they actually break even on the Hatem Bridge.

Looking at the toll increase, we are talking about moving from a $10-per-year toll system to one that requires an annual $36 fee, plus $18 in monthly charges and $25 deposited to maintain a sufficient balance. While you don't actually spend the $25, it is money for the state to hold on to, interest free, indefinitely. The total first-year cost becomes $79, moving to a $90 maintenance fee sometime in 2013. This is nearly a 700 percent and 800 percent increase on people who live and work in different counties but are one community and have been for many generations.

The MdTA is also shortsighted to think that this proposed system cannot be cheated. For multiple car families (almost a given in rural Maryland), one E-ZPass could serve as a means of transporting all cars across the river. Just swap out the E-ZPass from one car to another. Thus, the bridge revenue could fall far short of what the lawmakers in Annapolis are projecting. Furthermore, people already in Cecil County who decide not to get an E-ZPass will flee to Delaware for the nearest bowling alley, home improvement warehouse, department store or restaurant, leading to lower state sales tax receipts — and eventually, fewer jobs. The E-ZPass system would be a real loser for Maryland.

All of this leads me to suspect that the increased revenue will not support crossing the Susquehanna River. It will support other projects in this state. For two counties that get very little attention from the lawmakers in Annapolis — unless we're talking about a casino or BRAC — it seems unjust that our rural communities have to endure such an increase to interact with one another, while those living in the metropolitan areas get new highways and roads costing billions that are of little use to those of us who have no intention of using them.

If the tolls need to be raised, make it fair to those of us who live in the state, pay taxes here and buy our goods here. I'm all for a $20 decal, or the same $10 decal with a six-month term. Just don't kill intercounty transportation and state commerce.

I hold hope in my heart that the MdTA will actually listen to the public outcry, review the facts properly and come up with a fair solution to this problem, rather than using the current position as a means to an end with a $36 replacement for the decals. This country is still in a time of economic turmoil, and while Maryland has fared better than most states because of the federal government, our own lawmakers are digging deeper into everyone's pockets in order to benefit a select few.

Michael Lister, an engineer, lives in Perryville. His email is michaellister@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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