A pricier pass

The Baltimore Sun

E-ZPass might not be as E-Z on your wallet after July.

The Maryland Transportation Authority proposed yesterday to begin charging owners of the electronic toll-collection devices a fee of $1.50 a month - whether they use them or not.

The authority also outlined plans to charge E-ZPass users for new or replacement transponders and to raise tolls by 33 percent to 80 percent for heavy trucks and vehicles pulling trailers.

The changes, which are expected to be approved this month, are part of a package of measures the authority is proposing this year in order to raise an added $60 million to finance its operations. Others include increases in toll violation fines, a tightening of eligibility for commuter discounts and a doubling of the cost of a popular break for regular users of the U.S. 40 bridge over the Susquehanna River.

The bright spot in the authority's announcement: Unlike several states in the region, Maryland will not raise tolls on passenger vehicles.

"We don't believe there's a need to do that at this point," said state Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. He noted that Maryland tolls have not increased since 2003, when they doubled on the Baltimore harbor crossings and increased 25 percent on Interstate 95 and the U.S. 40 bridge.

Porcari said the proposals are intended to offset declining toll revenues and increases in the cost of maintaining the state's toll facilities - which include the Bay Bridge, the three Baltimore harbor crossings and the part of I-95 northeast of Baltimore known as the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway.

Like other states, Maryland has felt the impact of a decline in driving as a result of last year's high fuel prices and a worsening recession. From July through November, the authority posted a 6.1 percent decline in revenue - a $7.6 million loss - compared with the preceding year.

Porcari said the authority has contained costs and limited its capital spending to "system preservation" - with the exception of two mega-projects, the InterCounty Connector in the Washington suburbs and the addition of express toll lanes on I-95 northeast of Baltimore.

Authority spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks said Maryland initially subsidized E-ZPasses as a means of encouraging people to sign up. The state started allowing electronic toll collections in 1999 and joined the multistate E-ZPass network in 2001. The state now has 531,000 E-ZPass accounts, with 842,000 transponders.

Porcari said the authority determined that "now that E-ZPass has broad market penetration and is a proven time-saver," its users should cover the costs of their participation. He said that includes the $1.50 "account maintenance" charge, which will be used to compensate the contractor who handles E-ZPass billing, and the roughly $21 cost to the state of issuing a standard transponder. The E-ZPass changes would take effect July 1.

The authority is also proposing to begin charging a $3 fee for sending out notices that a motorist owes a toll. It would also raise the toll violation charge - assessed when a motorist fails to respond to such a notice - from $15 to $25.

The heaviest burden of the proposed changes would fall on the trucking industry and other operators of heavy vehicles.

Trucks with more than three axles could face varying toll increases depending on which facility they use. For the Harbor Tunnel, Fort McHenry Tunnel and the Key Bridge, the increases would range from $2 to $5, depending on the size of the vehicle. The Bay Bridge toll would rise $4 to $5.50. Increases on the Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Bridge on U.S. 40 would range from $5 to $13. There would be a $3 increase on the U.S. 301 bridge between Southern Maryland and Virginia.

Maryland Motor Truck Association President Anne S. Ferro said she was not surprised that the authority would raise tolls but expressed dismay that the industry would bear the brunt of the increases.

"What's so shocking to us is the level of the hike and the fact that it seems to be entirely on the back of the trucking industry," she said.

Ferro said the industry, already struggling in a bad economy, would prefer to see a more broad-based increase under which passenger vehicles would bear a share of the cost. She said commercial trucking now represents about 10 percent of vehicle traffic but bears 30 percent to 35 percent of the cost of tolls.

"Investing in our transportation infrastructure is vital to our success, but everyone needs to make that investment - not just commercial traffic," she said.

Porcari said that commercial traffic accounts for 35 percent to 39 percent of highway system costs and that tolls from the industry provide about 32 percent of the authority's revenue. The proposed increases would raise that to about 38 percent, he said.

The higher tolls for commercial vehicles would go into effect April 15. Also taking effect in April would be an increase of $5 to $10 in the cost of a vehicle identification sticker allowing a year of toll-free use of the Hatem Bridge across the Susquehanna.

The authority is also proposing to change the rules for commuter passes. As of July 1, motorists would have to complete 25 round trips or 50 one-way trips within a 45-day period, rather than the current 60 days, to qualify for reduced tolls.

Maryland is not alone in seeking more toll revenue. Porcari said several states in the region, including Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have recently raised tolls across the board. Sparks noted that several states and independent toll authorities in the region have begun charging for transponders and imposing monthly fees.

The board of the transportation authority is accepting public comments until Jan. 27 and plans a final vote Jan. 29.

Comments can be sent to mdtatollrates@mdta.state.md.us or to Ronald L. Freeland, executive secretary, Maryland Transportation Authority, 2310 Broening Highway, Suite 150, Baltimore, Md. 21224.


Proposed Maryland toll changes include:

* Increases of 33 percent to 80 percent in tolls for commercial or other heavy vehicles.

* A $1.50 monthly billing fee for E-ZPass customers and a $21 charge for new or replacement transponders.

* A $3 fee for using an E-ZPass lane without a working transponder and an increase in the toll violation fine from $15 to $25.

* Tightening eligibility rules for E-ZPass commuter plans to require a minimum number of trips to be taken within 45 days rather than 60 days.

Source: Maryland Transportation Authority

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