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AAA Mid-Atlantic put out a press release that does a good job of explaining the Maryland Transportation Authority's new fees and toll increases that take effect Wednesday. Unfortunately it goes on to blow a little smoke concerning its role.

AAA was actually late to the fight over the $1.50-a-month E-ZPass fee that has so many folks upset. It originally  supported the revenue package. It was AWOL at the meeting of the transportation authority board where the new  charges  were actually voted upon. It only started expressing opposition after hearing from members.

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In today's release, it bloviates about its petition  effort to get Gov. Martin O'Malley to overturn the board's action. As AAA knows very well, the governor does not have that power.

AAA spokeswoman Ragina Averella explained that what the AAA meant to say was that it wanted O'Malley to persuade the board to rescind. The problem is, that would be perceived as political pressure. And for the board to be seen as bowing to such pressure carries a big risk.

You see, the bond market, and bond rating agencies, value the independence of a toll authority's board -- knowing that necessary toll increases will never be popular with elected  officials. If a governor or legislature started to monkey with the actions of an independent board to score political points, the bond rating agencies could decide a downgrade was in order. The increased cost of the authority's borrowing could set back its maintenance efforts for years.

AAA is usually a trusted source of information and a responsible advocate on behalf of motorists. In this case, it put pandering to the masses over the need  to maintain its  credibility.

By the way, authority operations director Randy Brown tells me that Maryland expects to begin July  with more E-ZPass  subscribers than it did on Jan. 1. While about  19,000 subscribers have dropped their accounts, about 27,000 people have opened new accounts. The rate of growth has been slowed but hardly stopped.

Brown also told me that more than 72,000 of the authoriity's 500,000 accounts  as of Jan. 1 hadn't used their transponders in the previous 12 months. He said Maryland -- meaning fellow ratepayers -- paid $1.9 million to keep their accounts open.

"It's going to be a good business move to have customers who don't use their account to close  it," he said.

His statement may not be "sensitive" but it is correct.

Here's the AAA release:

NEW E-ZPASS FEES AND TOLL INCREASES EFFECTIVE JULY 1ST

AAA Mid-Atlantic and Over 5,000 Members Voiced Their Opposition To Increases

Towson, MD (June 30, 2009) – Effective July 1, 2009, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) is implementing several toll increases, as well as new fees for Marylanders holding E-ZPass accounts.

The E-ZPass fees effective July 1, 2009 consist of:

• A $1.50 monthly account maintenance charge;

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• A charge for the cost of new and replacement transponders ($21 standard, $33 exterior, $40 fusion);

• A charge for a $3 Notice of Toll Due; and

• Toll violation charges increasing from $15 to $25.

Additionally, the MdTA will change the duration of E-ZPass commuter plans from 60 days to 45 days.

Other toll increases include:

• Eliminating toll rates for multi-axle vehicles, including trucks with three or more axles and vehicles towing trailers, to help ensure that costs to preserve Authority roadways are allocated proportionately;

• Eliminating the Class 7 toll-rate schedule; and, in its place, implementing an oversize permit charge to use Authority facilities.

• A $2-$5 toll increase per trip depending on the number of axles at the Francis Scott Key Bridge and Fort McHenry and Baltimore Harbor tunnels;

• A $4-$5.50 increase per trip at the Bay Bridge;

• A $5-$13 increase per trip at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and Hatem Bridge; and a $3 increase per trip at the Nice Bridge.  The cost for A-series commercial tickets at the Hatem Bridge would also increase proportionately.

The new fees were part of a cost-recovery initiative approved in January by the MdTA board that is expected to generate approximately $60 million annually for the self-supported agency that owns, operates and maintains Maryland’s seven toll facilities.

According to a letter from the former Maryland Transportation Secretary, John D. Porcari, the MdTA understands the impact of approving the initiative on Maryland motorists, but ultimately found that the cost recovery was necessary to help ensure system preservation and safety projects remain fully funded.  The Agency also believed it was necessary to impose the new E-ZPass fees to help recover processing costs for the electronic toll collection system.

“While AAA Mid-Atlantic certainly recognizes the necessity to generate revenue for the maintenance, preservation and safety of Maryland’s road and bridges and supported the majority of the cost-recovery initiative, we opposed the $1.50 monthly fee for E-ZPass, as well as the transponder fee for new accounts,” said Ragina C. Averella, Manager of Public & Government Affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Based on feedback from many of the auto club’s Maryland members, AAA Mid-Atlantic is concerned that some E-ZPass account holders whom are occasional users will cancel their account rather than pay the additional monthly charge, especially during this current economic climate.  “This would be counter-productive at a time when we need drivers to utilize electronic toll collections and should be encouraging more drivers to take advantage of E-ZPass to expedite the flow of traffic,” commented Averella.  “Longer toll lines will slow us all down and are a step backwards in our state’s transportation progress and mobility.”

AAA Mid-Atlantic expressed its opposition of the proposed E-ZPass fees to the Executive Secretary of the MdTA, and contacted Governor Martin O’Malley to request that the Governor overturn the MdTA’s decision.  The auto club encouraged its membership to contact the Governor, as well.  As a result, over 5,000 e-mails were sent to Governor O’Malley.

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