Maryland tolls playing catch-up

The Maryland Transportation Authority moved a step closer to raising its tolls to the levels paid elsewhere around the country when its board formally proposed the largest increases in the state's history.

Board members gave preliminary approval Thursday to a plan that would raise rates at all of the state's toll bridges, tunnels and highways — in some cases doubling or even tripling what drivers pay today.

But while the increases in percentage terms appear enormous — more than 200 percent in some cases — Maryland's tolls have been low compared with rates in other states. The proposed increases, which will be the subject of public hearings this month, do little more than catch up with fares elsewhere.

To cross the nearly mile-wide strait between Staten Island and Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, westbound cash customers must pay a $13 toll for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In Maryland, it's eastbound travelers who pay the toll on the 4.3-mile-long Bay Bridge. But they get off more easily — handing over the same $2.50 they've been paying since 1975.

Under the plan approved Thursday, that toll would rise to $5 on Oct. 1 and to $8 in July 2013. At the three Baltimore harbor crossings, cash customers who now pay $4 for a round trip would see the toll rise to $6 this year and to $8 two years from now. Other state toll facilities would reach the same level by 2013.

One reason for the sticker shock is that Maryland's base tolls have remained level since 2003, while maintenance costs and debt from two large projects have risen. The state raised tolls on trucks in 2009, but exempted two-axle vehicles from the increases.

Randolph P. Brown, acting executive secretary of the authority, told the board that his staff's recommended proposal would generate $77 million in new revenue in the 2012 budget year; $119 million in 2013; and $132 million in 2014. Board members said the revenue is needed to meet commitments to bondholders and to keep up with the mounting costs of maintaining an aging system.

Board members could make changes based on public hearings and written comments before taking a final vote in August. The increases don't require the approval of Gov. Martin O'Malley or the General Assembly.

The proposed toll increases come as no surprise to those familiar with the system. The state's Department of Legislative Services has been warning lawmakers for years that hefty rises were coming, largely to pay off the debts run up by the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector in suburban Washington and the $1 billion Express Toll Lane project on Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore.

"Increased reliance on debt to fund construction of a new toll facility and the major expansion of an existing toll facility will result in significantly higher debt service payments over the next 30 years," legislative analysts wrote early this year.

Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Road News, said many U.S. toll authorities held off on increases during the recession years. But as traffic recovers, he said, "a lot of them are saying we've got to get back to business again."

Samuel called the Bay Bridge, where a round trip now costs less than when the first span opened in 1952, "a real bargain."

But that would change.

"With these proposed tolls, they would certainly begin to be regarded as quite high," he said.

How high the tolls would be in relation to those of other states is difficult to say. It is difficult to compare one toll facility to another, especially in the case of tunnels and bridges, because each has a unique set of variables: when it was built, how long it is, engineering challenges unique to the location, climate and whether it's in an earthquake-prone region, among others.

The authorities that operate toll facilities nationwide have adopted radically different pricing schemes over the years. Some give a break to users of electronic tolling. Most offer discounts to regular commuters, though few are as generous as Maryland's. Others offer off-peak price breaks or impose surcharges at times of heavy tourist use — ideas Maryland's board has not embraced.

Under the board's proposal, Maryland would, for the first time, offer a price break to E-ZPass users. But only those with Maryland-based accounts would be eligible for the 10 percent discount, which is intended to reflect the lower cost of collecting money electronically and to provide an incentive to use the passes.

That's not as generous as the $3.40 break given to E-ZPass users on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but it would save 50 cents on a $5 Bay Bridge crossing.

The authority's proposal to increase its basic round-trip toll to $8 — eliminating current disparities among different toll facilities — would raise rates to the level cash customers now pay during peak hours on the George Washington, Goethals and Bayonne bridges and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels into New York.

Across the country, passenger car drivers pay $6 to cross the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges in one direction during peak hours. But their commuter plans are open only to carpoolers and are far less generous than Maryland's — even with the proposed changes.

In the Mid-Atlantic, the nearly mile-long Delaware Memorial Bridge, a major river crossing on the main interstate route between Baltimore and New York, is facing many of the same maintenance issues as Maryland's toll bridges. The current round-trip toll of $3 is scheduled to go up to $4 on July 1 to pay for infrastructure improvements.

Perhaps the closest match in the country to the Bay Bridge in terms of age and length is Michigan's Mackinac Bridge, which connects the state's mainland with its Upper Peninsula. That five-mile-long bridge, opened in 1957, now collects $7 for a round trip. Unlike the Bay Bridge, however, it is not a major commuter route.

In recent decades, Maryland has seen far less political strife over tolls than many other states. To a degree, that's because of the independence of the authority, whose decisions are not subject to review by the legislature or the governor. But, as Samuel noted, it is probably also because tolls have not increased much.

With the proposed increases, however, polls could become a hot political issue.

In the audience as the board gave its OK to proposed increases was state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, the General Assembly's leading critic of the toll authority. The Eastern Shore Republican said the increases were unnecessary and mocked the contention by board members that they need to educate the public about the reasons for the increases.

"I think the board needs to be educated that a 300 percent toll increase is outrageous … and incredibly out of touch with the struggles of working families today," he said.

In addition to the toll increases and the E-ZPass discount, the board's proposal would make significant changes to the way Maryland administers tolls. Among its provisions, the plan would:

•Scale back Maryland's commuter discounts to levels closer to the national norm. Under the proposal, commuter discounts would be lowered to 70 percent of the cash rate in October and 65 percent in 2013. Thus, a commuter using one of the harbor crossings in both directions would see a daily increase from 80 cents now to $1.80 in October and $2.80 in 2013.

•Eliminate the decal system at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, under which frequent users can pay $10 for unlimited use of that Susquehanna River crossing for a year. The authority would replace the decals with an E-ZPass-based system under which users would pay $36 a year starting Oct. 1 and $72 a year starting in 2013.

•Replace the current $3 fee for mailing notices of tolls due with a 25 percent surcharge on the applicable toll. That surcharge would apply to vehicles that use the ICC without E-ZPasses and get a camera-generated bill in the mail, as well as to users of other toll facilities who go through E-ZPass lanes and whose payments don't register. The effect would be to lower the surcharge on drivers of personal vehicles and increase them for large trucks, which pay higher per-axle tolls.

State Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, who chairs the board, said the authority spent $200 million recently on Bay Bridge deck replacement and repainting and $100 million on rebuilding the driving surface of the Hatem Bridge. She said tolls are the only way to pay for such repairs.

Members of the authority board "have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to be able to pay the bills and pay the bonds," she said.