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MdTA approves Maryland toll reductions

The Maryland Transportation Authority's board voted Thursday to reduce tolls statewide at the urging of Gov. Larry Hogan — mostly for E-ZPass drivers but also for those who pay cash at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

The $6 cash toll to cross the Bay Bridge will drop to $4 on July 1, in what Hogan called the state's first toll decrease in nearly 50 years. Those with E-ZPass will see reductions at toll facilities across the state the same day, from the Bay Bridge to the bridges and tunnels around Baltimore. The E-ZPass fee of $1.50 for Maryland residents with fewer than three transactions a month will also be eliminated.

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Mileage rates will be decreased on the Intercounty Connector and the express toll lanes on Interstate 95 north of Baltimore, and certain toll reductions will fall into place for small-business and commercial truck drivers, including those who work out of the port of Baltimore.

The reductions will decrease revenue for the authority, which maintains and operates the state's largest transportation assets, by an estimated $54 million annually. Critics of the plan, including state legislators who received little advance information about the changes, derided it as a threat to needed infrastructure improvements, including to the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland.

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On Thursday, Hogan called the toll reductions "by far our largest tax relief package to date."

During his campaign, Hogan promised to reduce taxes, tolls and other fees in the state, but saw several related proposals shot down by legislators in Annapolis during the recent session. Hogan said toll increases in 2011 and 2013 under the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley were what he heard the most complaints about — and part of a series of tax increases on residents he intended to reverse.

"It's the reason why I was elected, to change that downward spiral," Hogan said.

More than 25 million vehicles crossed the Bay Bridge in fiscal 2014, according to the MdTA — including many Central Maryland residents and out-of-state visitors headed to Eastern Shore beach resorts. A sign behind Hogan on Thursday as he answered questions about the reductions near the Bay Bridge toll plaza read: "Your Summer Vacation Just Got Cheaper."

Driver advocacy organization AAA Mid-Atlantic said it "applauds the discounted toll structure as long as the state is not sacrificing the necessary maintenance and rehabilitation of Maryland's aging bridges, tunnels and highways, or forsaking the safety and mobility of motorists."

The National Federation of Independent Businesses also praised the move as a cost-saving measure for small businesses.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, however, called the toll reductions "good politics, but bad policy," saying they would threaten the long-planned replacement of the Nice Bridge and the overall health of Maryland's infrastructure. He criticized Hogan for not providing him and other legislative leaders more information on the plan in advance of the MdTA board's approving it.

"He's looking at the next election; he's not looking at his relationship with the General Assembly," Miller said.

Hogan denied that the toll reductions would have an impact on the Nice Bridge — even though the MdTA board was told multiple times before approving the plan that it would cut a five-year, $56 million budget for Nice Bridge engineering to $26 million. He also dismissed legislators' concerns about not receiving a heads-up about the plans and about findings by state legislative analysts that O'Malley's toll increases were needed to cover debt from the ICC and the I-95 express toll lanes started under Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

"I don't really care what those legislators or their analysts think," Hogan said. "It sounds like a lot of whining."

Beyond the Bay Bridge cash toll reduction, E-ZPass users will see their toll at the bridge drop from $5.40 to $2.50, the same rate that existed between 1975 and 2011, when tolls were increased. Tolls for E-ZPass users will drop from $7.20 to $6 at the Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels, the Francis Scott Key and Thomas J. Hatem Memorial bridges and on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway stretch of Interstate 95.

Tolls for E-ZPass users at the Nice Bridge will fall to $4.50 from $5.40. Officials said decreased E-ZPass rates should drive up E-ZPass usage, which would reduce overhead costs.

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Mileage rates on the ICC and the I-95 express toll lanes will be decreased by 3 cents for two-axle vehicles, and large vehicles also will pay less under a new rate multiplier formula. Three- and four-axle vehicles with E-ZPass will see a 30 percent discount on the Hatem bridge, with the toll on three-axle vehicles dropping from $16 to $11.20 and the toll on four-axle vehicles dropping from $24 to $16.80.

The supplemental rebate program for E-ZPass vehicles with five or more axles will increase by 5 percent per trip level. Starting Jan. 1, trucks using the Childs Street and Interstate 695 turnaround exits at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and the Key Bridge, respectively, will decrease to $2 per axle. Both measures are aimed at benefiting truck drivers who work at the port of Baltimore.

During the MdTA board's special meeting on the toll reductions Thursday, staff members discussed various cost containment measures that would help offset the reduction in revenues, including a decision not to fill any currently vacant positions for toll operators and MdTA Police officers. Staff said that the reductions should not impact the MdTA's bond rating and that debt would be kept well below statutory caps.

The subject of the Nice Bridge's losing funding was by far the biggest point of contention at the board meeting.

Board member Michael Whitson, who is from Southern Maryland, said the reductions would be "crippling" to the Nice Bridge replacement plans.

"I've never seen us do something this quickly or this precipitously," he said. "It's a colossal blunder to pursue this."

Staff members said the $30 million reduction in funding for the bridge would be offset by an $18 million reduction in the estimated cost for acquiring right-of-ways for the bridge, leaving a shortfall closer to $11.4 million over 5 years. Board members asked whether the staff could find that amount of funding in the MdTA's five-year, $1.7 billion system preservation budget.

After the meeting, state transportation secretary Pete Rahn asked MdTA Executive Director Bruce Gartner to bring proposals to do so to the next scheduled board meeting. Gartner agreed.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House appropriations committee, said Hogan was well within his right to push the changes but questioned his assertion that it would not delay or kill any major transportation projects.

"There are going to be projects that are going to be affected," she said.

If it does impact projects, Hogan's office will have to disclose that to the legislature under budget language Democrats introduced this session in anticipation of a toll reduction, McIntosh said.

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"This does have more to do with a campaign pledge than it does really good policy, but we anticipated that he would do this," she said.

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There is also language in the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act that prevents Hogan from using general transportation funding to make up for lost MdTA toll revenues.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said there's no way to reduce tolls without limiting how many projects can be built. If the Nice Bridge isn't sacrificed, he said, something else will be.

"Obviously, the governor has the right to do that and it's going to benefit some people," said Busch, a Democrat. "The question is: What projects get bumped? … Certainly, people like to pay less, but the tolls help MdTA keep up the bridges and the tunnels. Somewhere, there are some projects that aren't going to be addressed."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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