Motorists who have been using an AVI decal to pay the toll to cross the Hatem Bridge should be prepared for some big changes in the coming weeks and months.
The Maryland Transportation Authority is phasing in two new E-ZPass plans for AVI decal users beginning Feb. 1, and officials are expecting some customer confusion and long lines as motorists make the transition.
"We recognize there is going to be a bit of a congestion issue if we cut them off," Randolph P. Brown, deputy executive secretary for MdTA, said at a press conference Wednesday morning.
All users must switch to one of two E-ZPass plans by Sept. 30 at the latest. Both plans, available for two-axle vehicles only, offer unlimited trips for an annual cost of $10.
Beginning July 1, 2013, the Hatem Bridge plans will increase to $20 per year.
"There is quite the potential for long lines at our stop-in centers, which is why we are trying to offer alternatives to the customer," Brown said.
The MdTA will increase staffing and add hours to its two Perryville stop-in centers, the JFK Administration Building at One Turnpike Drive and the Hatem Bridge center, just past the toll plaza on eastbound Route 40.
"I cannot stress enough that both facilities will have long lines," Brown said.
He urged people to visit the JFK building, as the Hatem Bridge site has very limited parking.
Both centers will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday; the JFK center will also be open from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, beginning Feb. 1.
The last day to buy AVI decals at the toll plaza will be Jan. 31.
On Feb. 1, customers can begin buying one of two E-ZPass plans either at the stop-in centers or by mail.
On-line enrollment begins Feb. 13 at ezpassmd.com. Customers can also download an application in advance, as well as get more information on all things toll-related, at http://www.mdta.maryland.gov.
Choice A is an E-ZPass account for the Hatem Bridge only. It has no fees, pre-paid toll deposits or account statements. Transponders are free under the plan until Jan. 31, 2013, when they will cost $9.
Choice B is for new or current E-ZPass Maryland account holders who wish to add a Hatem Bridge plan to their accounts. It is valid anywhere E-ZPass is accepted, and is subject to a $9 transponder charge for new accounts, a $25 pre-paid toll balance and a $1.50 monthly account fee (unless the account is used at least three times the previous month to pay Maryland tolls).
The MdTA will hold community open houses from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15, at the Havre de Grace Activity Center and Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Perryville High School to help customers learn more about the new E-ZPass plans.
The MdTA encourages customers to buy an E-ZPass early to avoid delays and long lines, as there are about 10,000 decal renewals each month.
Starting Feb. 1, the center toll lane on the Hatem Bridge will become E-Z Pass only, which could also affect traffic.
"It's going to be a big transition from AVI to the E-ZPass," Brown said.
Brown said he does not expect any hardware shortages or problems.
"We have been working early with our vendors to ensure we have hardware," he said.
The proposal of steep toll increases drew hundreds of residents to MdTA hearings in Perryville and Havre de Grace over the summer of 2010, prompting MdTA to ultimately scale back the price hikes.
The MdTA has not been hearing from residents as much anymore, Brown said.
"The feedback has lessened considerably," he said.
Nevertheless, he said it usually takes three to six months for traffic patterns to "settle down" after new tolls go in effect.
The new E-ZPass plans will allow MdTA to streamline its technology maintenance, as well as cut down on safety hazards for workers who have to walk out to the toll stations when the decals expire or malfunction, Brown said.
"What it does right off the bat is improve safety at the toll plaza," he said.
For additional information, go to http://www.mdta.maryland.gov or call E-ZPass customer service toll-free, 1-888-321-6824.