Hundreds in Havre de Grace again oppose toll hikes

The Maryland Transportation Authority got another earful of fervent opposition to its proposed toll increases on the Susquehanna River bridges during a public hearing in Havre de Grace on Monday night.

The turnout was smaller than the pressing crowds at Perryville High School June 16, but still numbered more than 500 and came close to filling the gym in the Havre de Grace Activity Center.

Seventy people, as well as 13 public officials, were signed up to speak when the hearing began.

Karen Green, director of the activity center, said the venue had 1,013 seats in the gym and about another 200 in the cafeteria, which clearly seemed sufficient.

"We have more space here than the high school," she said.

The hearing went until about 11:30 p.m., and Capt. Roy Mitchell of Havre de Grace police estimated 800 people attended.

Just before the meeting, Beverley Swaim-Staley, secretary of the state's transportation department and head of the MdTA, said she has been pleased with the hearings and was not surprised by the large crowds.

"I think that the turnout has been great in this area," she said. "I expected it and that's why we are having these public hearings."

Swaim-Staley would not comment on what MdTA officials have taken away from the hearings so far, except to say listening to the public has been useful.

"I think they have been very helpful," she said. "We are going to take back all the comments. We had some common themes that we have heard."

Swaim-Staley also said she was happy with the speakers who already testified at Perryville and was pleased with the choice of venue this time.

"I think that we tried to get some of the larger venues that we could," she said.

Officials and residents who spoke again made mention of the new InterCounty Connector, a toll highway in Montgomery County whose construction was launched during Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration and which many people see as the reason for the proposed toll increase.

Besides being a forum on the specifics of the MdTA proposal, the hearing became an outlet for anger atGov.Martin O'Malley's administration and government spending in general, with signs like "Owe Malley Says 'I Like Tolls, Taxes and Illegals'" in the audience.

Green, the activity center director, said she has terminal kidney disease and has to cross the bridge for dialysis regularly. She said if she were to miss two appointments, she would die.

"This toll kills me, literally, because I will not be able to pay the toll to afford my transportation," she said, explaining she has bought decals for several people who help take her across the bridge.

"I don't know how much longer I will be here, but I hope it will be as long as possible," she said, getting a standing ovation of support from the crowd.

Roxanne Sturdy, of Colora, said the toll shows the state continues to treat Cecil County like the redheaded stepchild.

"We are not a bunch of dumb hicks. We are intelligent, educated [people] who are tired of being referred to as 'Ceciltucky,'" she said, and expressed a popular view that a toll is the same as a tax. "No matter what you call it – fee, toll – it's all a tax. It's money out of our pocket and we can't afford it."

Several residents, however, made suggestions to the panel.

William Burton, of Havre de Grace, suggested keeping the AVI decals and raising their annual cost to $20 for Harford and Cecil residents only, who show proof of residency.

He also suggested banning large trucks from using the Hatem Bridge and forcing them to use the weigh station, as he said many evade the station by taking the Hatem Bridge instead of the Tydings Bridge over I-95.

"Enforce it. You will make more revenue," he said about the station.

Several people also wanted to eliminate the MdTA police, while at least one suggested getting rid of toll facilities because they have "parasitic" costs like maintenance and personnel expenses.

Stephanie Pope, of North East, said her husband works for a small company that has six trucks, and they would have to pay $5,000 per year to go across the bridge, if the toll hike goes through.

"We cannot afford it. We cannot absorb it," she said, explaining they go over the bridge at least five times a week. "If we try, we can pass the cost on to the consumer. I will tell you right now in front of these people that I will go out of my way and use the [Conowingo] dam every time if I have to."

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who helped recruit the large crowd on her Web site and Facebook page, assailed the MdTA for taking a "one size fits all" approach to tolls.

"We are not Montgomery County. We are not a cosmopolitan area. We don't deserve to have that happen to us here. We are different than those other areas of the state," Jacobs said, explaining there are a lot of older people in Harford and Cecil counties as well as people who have to use the Perry Point VA Medical Center in Perryville on a regular basis.

"We are not expecting a hand-out. We are expecting fair. We don't want it [the toll] to go up 300 percent," she said.

"We are two communities separated by a bridge," she said, adding Montgomery County's average income is probably two or three times that of Harford.

According to a 2009 estimate by the U.S. Census, the median household income for Montgomery County was $92,213, while Harford's was $75,872 and Cecil's was $65,079.

"The InterCounty Connector was built for convenience's sake," she said. "The Hatem Bridge was built out of necessity for us."

Showing the opposition to the proposal to eliminate the AVI decal in favor of an E-ZPass, Jacobs got a standing ovation in support when she said, "We don't want to do away with the AVI sticker."

Harford Del. Wayne Norman said he does not know what the MdTA is going to do, but "I think they're going to do what the governor tells them to do."

Norman told people to write to O'Malley.

"Tell him how fed up we are, and tell him don't dicker with the sticker," he said, to another loud round of cheers.

Harford Del. Susan McComas said she does not know if the economy will recover anytime soon.

"They should have been working on making the compelling case maybe several years ago, instead of making a 300 percent increase. You just can't do this all at once," she said. "Keep things the same; keep the status quo. There's too many changes, too many increases in prices."

Harford County Council President Billy Boniface said the county's economy has struggled to stay viable.

"In order to stay profitable, most of us have cut costs to the bare bone," he said. "A great deal of commerce takes place between Harford on this side of the river and Cecil and that side of the Eastern Shore."

Boniface said he is greatly concerned with effects on Darlington and the Conowingo Dam, as truck traffic there "continues to grow at an alarming rate."

He said the increase in tolls will only accelerate traffic on bridges that were not built to handle it and there is no money to take care of those issues.

"I hope it is not a foregone conclusion that the decision has already been made," Boniface said about the toll increases.

Harford County Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said Thomas J. Hatem, after whom the Route 40 bridge is named, spent his entire life trying to link the communities of Harford and Cecil.

"Please don't make his legacy one of divide," she said, explaining that people in both counties frequent the same businesses and have shared a common history.

Jim Ports, administrator for Harford Transit, presented a statement from Harford County Executive David Craig, who is at the Maryland Municipal League convention this week.

"The increase will hurt local working families trying to make ends meet," Ports read, adding that access to Perry Point and other hospitals and jobs will be impacted.

He also mentioned the recent initiative between Harford and Cecil Transit to launch a bus line across the Susquehanna River.

"Toll increases mean higher operational costs for our transit services," he said.

Jacobs also read a statement on behalf ofAberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett and the council, which read that on June 20 the council unanimously voted to support Havre de Grace's proposal to oppose the toll increase and eliminate the AVI decal.

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