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State prepares to shift to cashless tolls on Route 40 Hatem Bridge in Harford County

Workers have, in recent weeks, been installing facilities for “cashless tolling” on the Harford County side of the Route 40 Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which owns and operates toll bridges, highways and tunnels throughout the state, is preparing to shift to a cashless tolling system this fall at the Hatem Bridge and the I-695 Francis Scott Key Bridge crossing the Patapsco River near Baltimore.

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Starting in October, cash payments will no longer be accepted at the Hatem and Key bridges. Rather, motorists will travel under a gantry that has on it equipment to electronically read a driver’s E-ZPass or process a video toll — a camera is used to take an image of the license plate on the vehicle, and a notice that a toll is due is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle, according to the MdTA website.

Cashless tolling is expected to reduce the number of crashes at toll plazas, relieve traffic congestion at the toll facilities, help the environment and improve fuel efficiency by reducing the amount of time vehicles are idling, plus ensure the safety of MdTA toll collectors.

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John O’Neill, the agency’s chief operating officer, cited as examples an incident about two years ago when a driver crashed and killed a toll worker on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco when trying to bypass a backup at the toll plaza, as well as an incident in late spring when another driver on the Chesapeake Bay bridge in Maryland tried to get an “oversized” boat through and sheared off the side of a toll booth. O’Neill cited these examples during a June 17 presentation to the Havre de Grace mayor and City Council.

“We’d like to get our employees out of there, and we’d also like to get the customers just straight [through],” O’Neill said.

He noted at the time that about 5 percent of motorists pay the cash rates on the Hatem Bridge, which start at $8 for vehicles with two axles. About 94 percent use E-ZPass and the remainder pay via video tolls.

“We’re talking about 5 percent of the population that’s still paying cash at the Hatem Bridge, so we really need to get the word out,” O’Neill said.

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Workers have been installing the cashless toll gantries on the Harford County side of the Hatem Bridge during August. Once collection of the tolls starts in October, MdTA officials plan to have the toll plaza on the Cecil County side demolished, make a number of improvements to Route 40, plus upgrade the lighting and signs around the bridge, according to the agency website.

“I don’t foresee any kind of hindrance,” Patrick Sypolt, director of administration for the City of Havre de Grace, said in an interview last Thursday. “If anything, it might actually improve traffic flow.”

O’Neill noted during the June 17 meeting that paying by video toll is more expensive than E-ZPass, as video tolls come with the increased time and expense of taking the license plate image, finding through Maryland’s MVA, or motor vehicle agencies in other states, the vehicle owner, then mailing the notice, processing the payment or mailing a second notice if needed.

“The best way to pay is E-ZPass,” O’Neill said, noting an agency employee was in the lobby of City Hall to sign people up for E-ZPass.

Customers can either purchase a Choice A plan, in which they pay $20 a year for unlimited trips over the Hatem, although the plan only applies to the Hatem Bridge. They can also purchase a Choice B plan, through which they pay $20 a year for unlimited trips back and forth across the Hatem and pre-load additional funds to cover tolls at any other facility where E-ZPass is accepted — that plan grants customers a discount of at least 25 percent at a majority of other toll facilities, excluding the Intercounty Connector in the Washington, D.C. region and Express Toll Lanes on I-95 in Baltimore County, both of which already have cashless tolls, according to the MdTA.

Customers who have a Choice B plan for the Hatem are also eligible for a 30 percent discount if they have a three or four-axle vehicle, such as a car or truck and an attached boat trailer.

Traffic safety concerns

O’Neill fielded a number of questions from City Council members June 17, including from Council President David Glenn who challenged him about traffic safety, noting backups that happen on Route 40 approaching the bridge caused by drivers who get off Route 155, come down Ohio Street into the city and cross the Hatem Bridge at the lower E-ZPass toll rate, rather than use the I-95 Tydings Bridge.

“We get a lot of backups, a lot of traffic, and it really has an adverse impact on the safety of our residents,” Glenn said.

The council president said he has been in touch with state officials about the issue, including the Secretary of Transportation and the governor’s office, and representatives of the State Highway Administration have visited and acknowledged something must be done about the backup.

“I say, ‘It’s not my road, I can’t do anything; I’m reaching out to the state for help,'” Glenn said, as the routes in question involve state-maintained roads.

He has suggested instituting a $20 annual plan for Tydings Bridge users but been told that is not possible.

O’Neill acknowledged the problem, noting federal courts struck down a plan by Rhode Island to limit E-ZPass discounts to drivers from certain ZIP codes. He said the MdTA cannot offer annual discounts at Maryland toll facilities, other than the Hatem Bridge, because of “the way that the trust is structured and the way that the authority is established.”

He suggested that the agency could, “at this point,” conduct more traffic enforcement. He noted officials are “constantly exploring and evaluating other options” and that studies will eventually be conducted on what can be offered to I-95 motorists.

“Hopefully, we can come up with a solution but it’s not going to be an overnight, it’s not going to be a quick fix,” O’Neill said. “I wish I could give you the answer that we can fix this quickly, but it’s going to take some time to get this taken care of.”

Glenn said that he is “not going away,” and the city needs help. He reiterated his concerns, as well as his push for discounts on the Hatem and Tydings, in an interview last Thursday.

“With these cashless tolls, I just want to make sure that it didn’t take what’s already a bad situation and make it worse, and maybe it’ll go smoothly — one can only hope,” Glenn said.

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