Getting There: Myths abound when officials talk toll increases

When Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. won election as governor in 2002, he was faced with a tricky problem.

He had campaigned on a pledge to build the long-delayed Intercounty Connector in suburban Washington. The highway project would cost a fortune, far more than the state could afford out of its Transportation Trust Fund, and the Republican Ehrlich had taken a hard line against new taxes. He had to come up with some way to pay the $2.6 billion it would eventually cost.

The answer? He would make it a toll road. And to give his policies a semblance of geographical balance, he would launch a second $1 billion-plus megaproject in the Baltimore area: widening Interstate 95 northeast of the city by adding express toll lanes.

The opposition was underwhelming. The public, accustomed to thinking of tolls as relatively painless trifles, hardly raised a fuss. Business leaders were thrilled. Journalists, including myself, were distracted by the sexy issue of slots and barely paid attention when tolls were raised on the Harbor and Susquehanna River crossings in 2003.

Yes, the environmentalists tried to warn us that the ICC tolls would be high. And they were proved right. But I don't recall them ever talking about the tolls on the Fort McHenry Tunnel and Key Bridge. Had they successfully tapped into concerns about regional equity, they might have been more effective.

When the Ehrlich administration came up with its debt-heavy financing package for the ICC and the I-95 Express Toll Lanes, legislators forced some tweaks but basically gave it their blessing. A few far-out liberals raised a fuss, but the Democratic leadership and Republican minority were all for it.

More than eight years later, we're getting the bill for those decisions. The Maryland Transportation Authority has proposed a sweeping set of toll increases, the most in the state's history. And unhappy motorists are looking for someone to blame.

Try the nearest mirror.

We put Maryland in this position collectively. We wanted to avoid higher gas taxes, but we wanted new highways, too. Our elected officials, with few exceptions, signed on the dotted line. As a state, we pawned the revenue from all our toll facilities — not just the new ones. And we got some great interest rates in the process.

What I — along with most of my readers — didn't realize then is that when you commit to toll financing, it's a little like selling your soul to Satan. Old Scratch isn't in the business of letting you out of the contract. Default on the devil and there's hell to pay.

Much of the reaction to the proposed increases shows that ordinary folks — and some extraordinary ones as well — just don't understand tolls.

One of Maryland's leading citizens called me with a suggestion that the state could raise transportation revenue by slapping a toll on Interstate 83 just south of the state line to soak all those pesky Pennsylvanians who use our roads and don't even buy gas here.

I had to explain that the federal government won't allow a state to convert an existing toll-free interstate to a toll road just to tap into the wallets of its neighbors. Maybe if lanes were being added, but not to avoid raising tolls at other facilities. And because the feds put up most of the dough to build the Interstate Highway System, they get to call the shots.

From a federal point of view, they're right. The last thing the national economy needs is each individual state putting up barriers to interstate commerce. That's why we wrote the Constitution.

Another commonly heard suggestion is that we should scrap tolls entirely. After all, weren't they supposed to go away once the project was paid off?

Sorry, look at the devil's fine print. Projects are never really paid off. After construction bills are paid off, the facilities have to be maintained. In Maryland, those costs are enormous and growing. Our toll system is like a health care plan in which almost all the members are high-risk babies and geriatric cases. Only the Fort McHenry Tunnel could be called middle-aged, and its users pay more than their share of premiums.

So why can't we pull the toll facility in our own backyard out of the system so it doesn't have to pay the bills on the ICC? That's the solution some are suggesting for the Bay Bridge.

Sorry. Remember that pact with Beelzebub? It specifies that the Bay Bridge and all of those other facilities are backing existing bonds. And that's your signature on it, Mr. and Mrs. Maryland.

Some readers think the toll increase is a plot by Gov. Martin O'Malley to get money into the Transportation Trust Fund that he can siphon into the general fund. In fact, O'Malley has invited that belief because he has raided that fund to balance the budget.

But toll money doesn't go into that pot. And taxes don't fund the Maryland Toll Authority. So far, it's remained beyond the reach of desperate governors.

Some readers ask: Couldn't we just get rid of tolls and finance transportation with taxes?

Well, maybe — if we paid the toll authority's bondholders enough that they let us out of our obligations. But that, plus the cost of maintaining those aging facilities, would presumably have to come out of the already beleaguered trust fund. How much more are you willing to pay per gallon in gas taxes? Fifty cents? A buck?

Unless taxes suddenly become more popular, it appears we're stuck with tolls. That's not so bad. Tolls have their place in getting big projects done.

But there is one lesson we can take away from this round of increases:

If any politician comes along proposing a shiny new highway project and promising not to raise taxes, that means higher tolls for us down the line. Count on it.