The Harford County Council joined other local governing bodies around the region Tuesday by passing a resolution denouncing the Maryland Transportation Authority's planned toll increases over the Route 40 and I-95 bridges.
The resolution states the proposed higher tolls will "produce regional disparity and create a significant local burden," would "disproportionately harm the residents and businesses in both Harford and Cecil counties" and will create dangerous traffic conditions when trucks and commuters try to use the Conowingo Dam bridge and local roads to avoid tolls.
City or town councils in Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and Perryville have taken similar formal stands against the toll hikes.
During their meeting in Bel Air Tuesday evening, council members unanimously expressed their rejection of the proposed hikes and said they hope MdTA will reconsider its plans.
A number of them had also attended the two public hearings MdTA held last month in Perryville and Havre de Grace, where citizens and government officials alike decried the increases.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, who represents Havre de Grace, said MdTA's staff needs to go back to the drawing board and she hopes the agency reconsiders its plan to get rid of the AVI decal. She also noted two of the facilities MdTA plans to raise tolls on are only half a mile apart.
"I think the public outcry for the rejection of this toll proposal has been unprecedented. Clearly the two public hearings that were held, both in Perryville and Havre de Grace, demonstrated not only a local issue but a regional issue," Lisanti said. "I think that the message is loud and clear to MdTA that their proposal should be rejected. I think it's time they live within their means, as we all have had to do."
Councilman Chad Shrodes said he is worried about the impact on the farming industry and the likelihood increased traffic on rural roads in his Northern Harford district.
"The Conowingo Dam is 83 years old and we are going to be increasing traffic dramatically," he said about concerns the road over the dam will be used as a bypass for the tolls. "It's going to really affect our local communities and I think MdTA really needs to look at this closely…I understand fees may need to increase over time but this is unbelievable."
Councilman Dick Slutzky of Aberdeen said he did some basic research that makes it seem MdTA is sitting on a fund balance of more than $1.5 billion, yet they are asking for an ultimate toll increase of 300 percent.
"That is a little bit disturbing for me when I hear those kinds of conditions for them," he said.
Councilman Dion Guthrie of Joppatowne said a lot of elected officials in Annapolis have been feeling the heat regarding this issue.
"We are going to keep the heat on them," he said, adding he thinks there have been more people paying the tolls since BRAC rolled in and he wonders if MdTA is taking that into account.
"I hope this isn't one of the tricks they pull. I've seen it happen many, many times before, when they come in with a proposal to hike something to a big number, get everybody all worked up, then they cut that number in half so everybody feels good and they are exactly where they want to be," Guthrie said.
MdTA has not formally announced that the toll increases will take effect. The record for public comment remains open until Aug. 1, after which point the increases could go forward.
Most controversial of the increases would be the elimination of the popular $10 yearly AVI commuter decal on the Thomas Hatem Route 40 Bridge between Perryville and Havre de Grace. It would be phased out over the next year and replaced by E-Zpass costing $36 a year beginning Oct. 1 and increasing to $72 a year in July 2013.
The base cash toll on the Hatem and I-95 Tydings bridges is due to increase from $5 (collected northbound only) to $6 effective Oct. 1 and then to $8 effective July 1, 2013.
Truck and trailer tolls will increase commensurately on both bridges, which has residents and community leaders in northern Harford County concerned about increased truck traffic on Route 1 and other local roads, as truckers avoid the bridges in favor of the Conowingo Dam crossing where there is no toll.