Board mulls changes to toll-increase plan

Members of the Maryland Transportation Authority board are examining ways to buffer the impact of the authority's largest toll increase in history while still raising the money they believe is necessary to pay bonds and maintain its infrastructure.

Trailer users, in-state truckers and frequent travelers on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge could be among the beneficiaries of the changes discussed Thursday at the board's regular monthly meeting.

Whatever tweaks the board members decide to make, the start date for the first toll increases will likely be postponed by at least a month, according to Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley. The hikes were originally scheduled to take effect Oct. 1.

The board met just days before Monday's close of the public comment period on the two-stage increase proposed June 2. The plan would raise the cost of a two-way trip on each of the authority's fixed-toll facilities — but not on the variable-priced Intercounty Connector — to $5 or $6 later this year and to $8 in July 2013.

Board members recently completed a round of public hearings around the state at which they encountered vigorous opposition to the plan from both residents and elected officials.

No action was taken or specific changes proposed at Thursday's meeting. But board members insisted that the hearings were not a pro-forma gesture and that they had influenced members' thinking about specific provisions of the plan.

Swaim-Staley emphasized that the toll system's need for a cash infusion of the magnitude proposed — roughly $132 million a year starting in mid-2013 — has not changed.

"It's a matter of paying the obligations we've made as a system," she said. Those include debt service on the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector and the $1 billion express toll lanes on Interstate 95, as well as the rising cost of maintaining facilities that are as much as 71 years old.

The transportation chief, who chairs the authority board, said a complaint she is particularly interested in addressing comes from drivers of passenger cars that are hauling trailers such as those used for horses or boats.

Both now and under the proposed toll schedule, trailer users pay at the same rate as three- or four-axle trucks — even though they are typically much lighter. Under the proposal, a driver who hauls a small boat over the Bay Bridge using a single-axle trailer would see the round-trip toll rise from $9 now to $15 later this year and $24 in 2013.

There appeared to be a consensus that trailer users, many of whom spoke up at the hearings, deserve a break.

"We've got it wrong, and we've got to get it right," said board member Richard C. Mike Lewin.

But Randolph P. Brown, the authority's acting executive secretary, said the main obstacle was not financial but technological: The multistate E-ZPass system, which Maryland cannot change on its own, is set up to count axles rather than to compute weights. It would be difficult to lower tolls for the relatively small number of trailers without forgoing increases on the much larger class of midsize trucks, he said.

The discussion also showed that board members' views had been affected by testimony they heard from residents of Harford and Cecil counties, who are frequent users of the Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River on U.S. 40. There, the authority has proposed an end to the decades-old decal system under which motorists can make unlimited crossings for $10 a year — about 4 cents per round trip for a daily commuter. The decals would be replaced by an E-ZPass-based system under which the annual cost would go to $36 this year and $72 in 2013.

Board member Mary B. Halsey said the concerns of Hatem users were not simply monetary. "It's a systemic change" and "a major shock to them," she said.

While there appeared to be a consensus in favor of finding some way to cushion the blow for Hatem users, board members were not ready to back off the plan to scrap the decal system. Board members said the current system, which is confined to the Hatem Bridge, creates accounting problems and impedes the flow of traffic.

Intrastate trucking companies could also be in line to get some form of enhanced discount if the board's discussions translate into actions. Members have come under pressure from the General Assembly to go easy on Maryland-based truckers after the industry absorbed most of a toll increase in 2009.

Members said the hearings showed there is a great deal of confusion among Marylanders about how the toll authority operates, with many people — including some legislators — believing its revenues go toward general transportation purposes such as mass transit. Many people, they said, were not aware that the money stays in the toll facility system.

Swaim-Staley said that with the number of changes being considered, it was unlikely the board would be ready to vote on a final toll schedule on Aug. 25 as previously planned. Because a 30-day notice is required once a plan is adopted, that could push the first increases to Nov. 1 or later, an authority spokeswoman said.

But while the toll increases may be delayed, board members held out no hope that they would be canceled.

"We're not going to make everybody happy," said Walter E. Woodford Jr., the dean of the board members. "We may not make anybody happy."


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