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Getting There: Bridge, tunnel toll increases cruel but fair

Baltimoreans who are horrified at the prospect of paying more to cross wide bodies of water get their chance to whoop and holler tonight at Digital Harbor High School when the Maryland Transportation Authority holds its first public hearing in the region on a pending proposal for the most sweeping toll increases in Maryland's history.

It's not a stretch to predict that opponents will outnumber defenders of the increases by about a zillion to one. The arguments will be impassioned, angry and probably even tearful — but ultimately irrelevant.

You see, tolls aren't taxes. Tolls are something far different and less democratic.

With taxing decisions, the desires of the voters are paramount. "No taxation without representation" was a principle established in the American Revolution.

There's a reason that the slogan doesn't read "no tolling without representation." The Founders understood tolls. And they understood contracts.

When Maryland built its toll facilities, it did so by selling bonds. Bonds have covenants that are contractually binding on the state. Among those covenants were those backing the bonds that financed the costs of building the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector and the $1 billion Express Toll Lanes on Interstate 95 — two of the major drivers behind the proposed increases.

Members of the authority board have two primary obligations: to live up to those covenants and to keep the infrastructure in good repair. In order to ensure they can, the General Assembly long ago gave them independent authority to raise tolls when necessary. That keeps bond buyers happy and the state's borrowing costs low.

So really the board doesn't have much wiggle room when it comes to how much revenue it needs to raise. The numbers are the numbers. If members lose their nerve and don't meet the expectations of the market, the state's bonds could be downgraded and the system could go into decline.

Where the board does have wide discretion is in how it apportions the toll increases. Past boards abused that discretion by playing favorites and distributing the burden unfairly.

This board, to its credit, isn't doing that. To steal from Monty Python: It's a cruel plan, but fair.

It doesn't appear that way to some toll customers, however. The loudest howls have been coming from users of the Hatem Bridge and Bay Bridge, where many users have been insulated from increases for decades — even as customers of Baltimore-area facilities have seen tolls double.

At the Hatem Bridge, holders of decals get to use the bridge for a year for $10, or pennies for each crossing. The board has proposed raising that to $36 this October and $72 in 2013, payable through E-ZPass. Gone would be the decals, an expensive system to run for just one facility. At the Bay Bridge, tolls that have been frozen at $2.50 round-trip since 1975 would go to $6 this year and $8 two years later.

The pain is understandable. Nobody feels as deeply aggrieved as someone whose special status is in jeopardy. Privilege, when held long enough, feels like an entitlement.

That's why we're hearing charges from rural legislators that the proposed toll increases are part of a "war against rural Maryland."

Rubbish. One could more accurately say that past boards conducted a "war on urban Maryland" and that Baltimoreans didn't bother to fight back. In 2003, the board doubled the round-trip toll on the three Baltimore Harbor crossings to $4 — largely to pay for an Intercounty Connector that many Baltimoreans will never use. Users of the Bay Bridge and the Hatem decal holders got a free pass.

Nobody likes to see tolls go up, but at least give this board credit for distributing the pain fairly. Whether you use the Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland, the Bay Bridge, the harbor crossings or the Susquehanna River bridges, you'd pay $8 round-trip as of 2013.

There will be board members at each of the nine public hearings around the state. The ones who attend the hearings in Perryville, Havre de Grace and Stevensville will be pounded with heart-rending pleas to perpetuate the sacred cow status of "their" bridges.

Tonight's hearing will be a chance for Baltimoreans to tell board members they're tired of paying more than their fair share. It would be a good time to remind them that the Fort McHenry Tunnel in recent years has been by far the most profitable facility in the system (with the Harbor Tunnel second), while the Hatem Bridge has been the most needy. It would be prudent to point out that $8 to cross the Chesapeake Bay is a sweet deal when you look at the alternatives — much more so than $8 to traverse Baltimore Harbor when there's a free alternative on the west side of town.

Truly, there's far too much parochial thinking going around. Over time, the various facilities of the Maryland Transportation Authority system support each other. Is the Bay Bridge helping to pay for the ICC and the I-95 toll lanes now? Yes, though not nearly as much as the tunnels. Would it pay more under this proposal? Yes again.

But in the coming decades, the ICC will be paid off and likely generating big profits. The Express Toll Lanes could be raking in healthy returns. And these healthy youngsters will pay for the geriatric care of the Bay Bridge and help replace the obsolete Nice Bridge, the new version of which will support the McHenry Tunnel in its dotage.

It's the old concept of what goes around comes around. Or as former Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. put it: One Maryland.

But that's for another day. For now, Baltimore needs to push back every time the rural counties play the victim. We pay our fair share at the toll plazas. It's time they did, too.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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