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Hogan's transportation chief defends decision to cut tolls

Maryland's top transportation official defended the Hogan administration's recent decision to reduce tolls on the state's bridges, tunnels and toll roads, insisting Tuesday that the move will not lead to compromises on maintenance or safety.

At a state Senate briefing, Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said the $336 million in lost revenue over six years from the toll cuts can be offset with unanticipated extra revenue and spending reductions.

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Rahn said the toll reductions approved last month by the Maryland Transportation Authority should have come as no surprise because Republican Gov. Larry Hogan campaigned on a pledge to reduce tolls.

"The governor has said that he believes it is more important to have money in the pockets of hard-working Marylanders than on the balance sheet" of the transportation authority, Rahn said.

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While Rahn said the reduction will not affect plans for future projects, he faced skeptical questioning about the cuts' impact on road projects — especially on the possible replacement of the 75-year-old Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland.

Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton of Charles County, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, raised concerns that the authority was squandering a surplus that could be used to begin the construction phase of a new bridge about 2020.

Rahn assured senators there is still enough money in the authority's coffers to complete the design of the bridge project, but gave no assurance about where construction funds would come from.

The authority adopted a series of toll reductions, including a cut in the cash tolls at the Bay Bridge from $6 to $4 and a drop in the E-ZPass rate to $2.50. Other reductions included cutting E-ZPass rates at fixed toll facilities such as bridges and tunnels. Motorists will now get a 25 percent discount for using E-ZPass, up from the current 10 percent discount. Users of the Intercounty Connector and Express Toll Lanes on Interstate 95 will receive a break on the per-mile cost.

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The toll reductions take effect July 1.

After the hearing, Hogan unleashed a broadside against the Democratic leaders who called for the briefing.

"Today's committee hearing only served to once again demonstrate the huge disconnect between the politicians in Annapolis and the rest of Maryland," he said in a statement released by his office. "It should come as no surprise that some of the legislators who supported the massive tax and toll increases of the past eight years are now questioning the need to reduce them."

Legislative analysts told senators the authority will still be able to keep up with its debt obligations, though with a thinner cushion than before the cuts. They also said the revenue reduction will increase the amount of debt the authority will carry in 2021 by about $200 million — from $1.9 billion to $2.1 billion.

Maryland last raised its tolls under the O'Malley administration when the authority's board voted in 2011 to increase them in two phases — one that year and another in 2013.

Bruce W. Gartner, the authority's executive secretary, said the first phase of the increase brought revenue just as projected, but the second phase produced more than expected because usage did not drop off as much as predicted. That left the authority with almost $34 million more revenue than it expected for the fiscal year that ended last June 30.

"People need to use the facilities and they paid the toll," Rahn said. He said the authority is counting on such usage to continue, helping to offset the toll reductions.

In addition to the Bay and Nice bridges and the ICC, the authority is responsible for the upkeep of the Baltimore Harbor crossings, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and the U.S. 40 bridge over the Susquehanna River. The authority is also responsible for many of the approaches to those facilities, including the road work many Baltimore commuters are encountering on I-95 south of the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

Senators' views of the toll decreases generally varied by party. Republicans on the two committees briefed Tuesday were enthusiastic, while Democrats were more skeptical.

Minority Leader J. B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican, criticized former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley for the previous increases.

"The first thing is that the O'Malley toll hikes were excessive and that with fiscal stewardship we were able to lower them," Jennings said.

But Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, called the recent reductions "politically expedient" and quizzed Rahn on why the authority had not held public hearings first on the impact of the toll cuts.

Rahn said there was no need because "the direction of the administration was very, very clear for all before the election."

Much of the discussion centered on the Nice Bridge, the narrow two-lane span that carries U.S. 301 across the Potomac River between Charles County and Virginia's Northern Neck. Many in Southern Maryland want to see the bridge replaced — a project has been estimated at $1 billion.

Middleton, who said he's been pushing for the bridge's replacement for over 15 years, said his constituents have been paying higher Nice Bridge tolls to pay for projects elsewhere, such as the ICC and the Express Toll Lanes, hoping the authority's surplus would eventually be used to jump-start Nice construction.

But Rahn balked at the $1 billion estimate for a full replacement of the bridge. "I don't believe it has to cost $1 billion," he said. "We will come up with a more economical design for the project."

Middleton expressed alarm at reports the authority board is considering a cheaper deck replacement rather than a new bridge. While re-decking would give the bridge a new surface, it would not increase the capacity of a frequently congested bridge that was built to the standards of the 1940s.

The senator expressed concern that a re-decking project would require a shutdown of the bridge for an extended period — forcing some Southern Maryland residents to travel an extra 150 miles or more to use the Woodrow Wilson Bridge near Washington to reach destinations in the South.

Middleton noted that many Charles County residents work at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va., just on the other side of the Nice Bridge.

Rahn, a recent arrival in Maryland who acknowledged never having crossed the Nice Bridge, said that the span could not receive a deck replacement without closing down. During the briefing, Middleton invited Rahn to visit Charles County to meet with the local commissioners and tour the bridge. Rahn accepted.

Rahn told senators that since the toll cuts were approved, two of the three U.S. credit agencies have reaffirmed the transportation authority's AA bond rating — the top score achievable by an agency whose debt is not secured by the state's full faith and credit. He said the other agency has not weighed in.

He said the authority would maintain a $350 million cash balance that would be a "substantial buffer" for any unanticipated expenses" in the maintenance of the authority's eight toll facilities.

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Toll cuts

These are some of the toll changes taking effect July 1.

•Cash toll on Bay Bridge cut from $6 to $4. New E-ZPass rate of $2.50 for 2-axle vehicle.

•Higher E-ZPass discount of 25 percent at most other toll facilities, up from current 10 percent.

•Lower toll rates on Intercounty Connector and Interstate 95 Express Toll Lanes by 3 cents per mile for two-axle vehicles.

•New 30 percent E-ZPass discount on Hatem Bridge (U.S. 40) for most passenger vehicles with trailers.

•$1.50-a-month E-ZPass fee eliminated for state residents.

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