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Time to tackle the tolls [Editorial]

It's a welcome development that elected officials representing people in Harford and Cecil counties are planning a full-court press when the Maryland General Assembly session opens in January to get some relief for local people who have been obliged to pay higher tolls to cross the Susquehanna River.

Getting across the Susquehanna River between Perryville and Havre de Grace is one of the reasons the two towns came into being, and the communities are linked today as much as they were when both riverbanks were needed for staging areas to get across. Before there was a bridge of any kind, there was a ferry crossing.

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Of course, when the ferry crossing was active, there was a hefty fee to be ferried across the river. That economic activity helped the two communities to become established and other activities would eventually far exceed the business done at the crossing.

Travelers paying hefty fees to get their wagons across the Susquehanna is a throwback to another century and the situation at the Susquehanna has changed an awful lot since then. Though the Susquehanna remains an obstacle, it also is, along with the upper Chesapeake Bay, a major attraction. Given the high value of the boats occupying many hundreds of slips on either side of the Susquehanna, upriver into Port Deposit, the economic value of the river as an attraction is substantial.

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This economic activity depends, to some extent, on being able to easily get across the Susquehanna.

Easy crossing in modern times means not having to pay hefty fees to cross. Even as the old ferry system depended on substantial fees, the modern reality is such that charging a high price to cross the river has a detrimental effect on local commerce.

Viewed from the perspective of someone who enjoys boating, charging high tolls at the Route 40 bridge – the likes of which were put into effect by the state government in 2014 — would be akin to starting to charge tolls at the Route 50 and Route 90 bridges that provide easy tourist access between Ocean City on Fenwick Island and Ocean Pines and West Ocean City on the mainland. Imagine the economic pinch that would hit the mainland attractions, if visitors to the beach were obliged to pay $8 to $12 or more to cross over to the mainland to take in attractions there?

For many years, the state recognized that Havre de Grace and western Cecil County formed a single community. Only in the past decade has Perryville had its own grocery store. Prior to that, many residents of the town did their shopping in Havre de Grace. Similarly, churches and community organizations on either side of the river have drawn members from the other side.

The state operated a rather convenient sticker system that allowed people living on either side of the river to purchase stickers for a modest price and then cross the Route 40 bridge without paying again until the sticker needed to be replaced.

The sticker technology was unique in Maryland, which became one of the state's excuses for changing the system to the more universal E-ZPass system. That made sense, but the accompanying boosts in fees didn't. Sure, the modern E-ZPass system allows for unlimited crossings for an annual fee of $20, but this applies only to two axle vehicles. People towing boats pay substantially more.

The $20 E-ZPass arrangement isn't a bad deal, but it did constitute an increase over the charge for a sticker, and it did add substantially to the charge as it affects people who trailer their boats.

John Sales, a spokesman for the MdTA, highlighted the special arrangement his agency offers, saying in a recent email "you cannot get a discount plan like this at any other toll facility in the State."

He's right, of course, but the discount plan used to be better. Moreover, in other parts of the state where bridges are vital links between two parts of a unified community, tolls aren't necessarily part of the equation. There is no toll, for example, to get across the Severn River, which bisects the greater Annapolis area. Neither is there a toll to cross, as noted before, the bridges that span the waters between Ocean City and the mainland. Some Potomac River bridges aren't toll facilities.

The MdTA has maintained of late that it's important for the same toll structure to be in place for both the Route 40 and I-95 bridges, which span the river within sight of each other. This keeps long distance travelers, so goes the logic, from moving off the Interstate to take advantage of lower tolls. It sounds logical, but as a practical matter, Route 40 has long been a mainly locals-only route.

Among the proposals lawmakers pushing the toll issue should consider is demanding that the Route 40 bridge be turned into a no-tolls facility, with strict limits on truck traffic to discourage long-distance drivers from clogging local roadways and avoiding tolls. It may seem like a tall order, but it's worth remembering that there is a free crossing at Route 1 that can be seen by drivers crossing the I-95 bridge. There are truckers who cross the Conowingo Dam, but no one is proposing levying tolls to cross at Conowingo Dam.

Even if a toll ends up being kept in place for the Route 40 bridge, better provisions than are in place need to be made to accommodate people who need to cross the Susquehanna regularly.

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