The Maryland Transportation Authority is reconsidering its controversial proposal to raise tolls on the Susquehanna River bridges and other bridges and tunnels and will delay implementation of any such increases until later in the year, the agency said this week.
It has also come to light that the proposed toll increase affecting commuters using the Route 40 Hatem Bridge could end up netting the state some $9 million in additional revenue annually, if the current discount decal program is ended.
After the public comment period ended Monday on the proposed toll increases for all the state's bridges and tunnels, some local officials in Harford and Cecil counties said they have come to believe MdTA might at least change its position on the discounts offered to commuters who use the Route 40 Hatem Memorial Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville.
MdTA still isn't saying much, but the agency did release a statement suggesting its board is open to changing part of the original plan to ultimately make Hatem Bridge users pay an annual $72 for an E-ZPass in 2013. The current annual commuter rate is $10 for the automatic vehicle identification decal, or AVI, which permits unlimited trips.
The MdTA plan also called for implementing the E-ZPass system on the bridge effective Oct. 1, with an annual rate of $36 until July 2013, when the annual rate would go to the $72 annually.
MdTA has 150,000 AVI decals circulating at a given time, spokeswoman Lesli Leath said Thursday.
That means MdTA could get as much as $10.8 million if those decal users were to pay an annual $72, up from the $1.5 million it gets now from the decal program.
Kelly Melhem, MDTA spokeswoman, said in a press release that board members "will re-examine elements of the proposal over the next several weeks and use the public's feedback to help shape a final plan for approval later this summer … As a result of these ongoing discussions, phase-one implementation of toll increases will no longer be Oct. 1 as proposed, but is still expected to take place before the end of the year."
State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who represents Harford and Cecil counties, said the MdTA board will "definitely" take some of the toll increase burden off the Hatem Bridge.
"I have the distinct impression that one of those areas they are considering changes in is the Hatem Bridge … They realize what they have done, about going up too much on the bridge," Jacobs said Wednesday. "The other area has to do with trucks. The trucking industry has borne the greatest burden of the last toll increase and now they are going to take another huge hit."
Some other groups Jacobs expects MdTA to be more sympathetic to are recreational boaters and people with horses, of which she said Cecil County has plenty.
"They recognize it's a problem," she said about the MdTA board.
While the board was set to continue discussing possible ideas at another meeting Thursday, Jacobs said she hopes they take up the plan she had proposed earlier.
"I am hoping they will do what we asked, which is give [Hatem Bridge users] a free E-ZPass, have it be Hatem-only, and not have them put down any money on their account," she said, referring to several of the counter proposals she made to the agency.
The MdTA board posted a news item on its website thanking the nearly 4,000 residents and elected officials who responded during the public comment period statewide.
The item reads: "Based on public feedback, the Board is re-examining and further discussing at a minimum the following items: size of the toll increases, especially those proposed for July 1, 2013; commuter toll rates; impact on drivers of recreational vehicles/trailers; impact on trucking companies; replacement of the Hatem Bridge AVI decal; size of the new E-ZPass Maryland discount; the monthly $1.50 E-ZPass account charge that has been effective since July 2009."
The board expects to post a summary report on the public comment period sometime this month and to vote on a final tolling plan later this summer.
State Del. Mary-Dulany James, who also represents the area served by the Hatem Bridge, said she has also been involved in the issue and that it's mostly a matter of updating technology, not of money.
"Under the bonding agreement, [the Hatem Bridge] is treated differently from all the other tolling facilities in the state of Maryland," James said Wednesday. "It doesn't need to pay for itself and it never has."
The MDTA board, she said, has "conceded that this is not a monetary issue. There is a bit of a public safety issue with the AVI decal."
James said she is "fairly confident" the MdTA board will continue the AVI decal for a longer amount of time and allow a local discount for the bridge.
She said she worked with Del. David Rudolph, who represents western Cecil County, to find cases showing it would be legal to have a local payment system.