Elected officials and average citizens alike seemed relieved to hear the Maryland Transportation Authority has backed off the steep commuter toll hikes for the Hatem Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville that drew massive protests earlier this year.
The MdTA board approved its new plan Thursday morning that will keep the AVI decal toll bridge sticker, at the cost of $10 per year, for another year.
As of Sept. 30, 2012, an EZPass will be required. There will be a special program specifically for Hatem Bridge users that will raise the cost of crossing the Hatem to $20 per year starting July 1, 2013.
With a Hatem Bridge-specific transponder, there are no monthly account fees or pre-paid tolls, and the transponder is free until Jan. 31, 2013.
"Operationally, it is time for us to transition from antiquated toll-collection methods and technology, including AVI decals and ticket programs. But we understand that this is a big change for communities using the Hatem Bridge," acting MdTA Executive Secretary Randolph P. Brown said in a press release Thursday morning.
"We are planning an extended transition and outreach period to help customers make the switch to an E-ZPass Maryland Hatem Bridge Plan," he said in the release.
That would be a sharp reduction from raising it to the regular EZPass price of $36 per year, which would have ultimately gone up to $72.
State Sen. Nancy Jacobs said she is pleased to see the board accepted the plan she submitted earlier.
"To be perfectly honest with you, I even wondered in the beginning if it was worth submitting a plan," Jacobs said, but she noted that MdTA board members soon became more amenable to lowering the proposal.
"I was expecting some concessions," she said. "I never thought they would come back with pretty much the plan I put in. They went far beyond what I thought they would do and it's heartening to me that they listened. They listened to my constituents."
Jacobs said almost all the feedback she has heard from people indicates they are pleased as well.
"The great majority of the people are very much relieved that they listened to the people of Cecil and Harford County. A lot of them are shocked that they did," she said. "You get a free EZPass, you get no monthly charges and you don't have to put anything down on it, and I don't think that's been comprehended by everybody."
The current AVI program at the Hatem Bridge has about 150,000 users, according to MdTA.
At the Havre de Grace City Council meeting Monday night, Councilman Fred Cullum said the MdTA concessions show resident feedback matters.
"The bottom line is, the people spoke and it made a difference. I think anybody who went to those two hearings… the politicians that spoke were making campaign speeches more than they were making speeches on behalf of the citizens. I think the citizens who spoke are the ones that did the good," Cullum said.
He said he was glad to hear about the new toll proposal for Hatem Bridge.
"It looks like it's going to be a pretty decent deal," he said, but added he is still worried about the impact of a Hatem-only deal.
"My fear is they're going to do that and it's going to be a reduced rate on the Hatem Bridge but not on the Tydings Bridge, and we're going to have all this traffic come over to Hatem," he said. "That's really going to cause traffic hazards for Havre de Grace and Perryville. I'm not sure what their plan is, how they're going to work it."
The board plans to give Hatem Bridge users a free EZPass transponder for two years and no monthly administration fee, and will keep the annual cost of going over the bridge at $10.
The cost of a transponder is also being decreased overall to $9.
The cash tolls at Route 40 Hatem Bridge and the I-95 will still go up from $5 to $6 on Oct. 1 and then to $8 on July 1, 2013. That was what the MdTA staff originally recommended.
Some people who commented on Jacobs' Facebook said they are glad about the new Hatem Bridge proposal.
Michael Dawson, of Perryville, who is not related to that town's commissioner of the same name, wrote on the Facebook wall: "That is an excellent deal and, ironically, very near the proposal you put forth!! Way to go Sen. Jacobs!!! Identical to the basic terms of the AVI and allows them to retire the antiquated technology of the decal system… This may dramatically reduce traffic on Rt. 155 in Havre de Grace, the bridge itself and Rt. 222 in Perryville as they avoided the I-95 toll with an AVI decal. Seems like an added bonus to me."
Patty Bethke, of North East, wrote: "As with all government, let's see what the final deal is. Then see what cards are dealt. It sounds good so far."