The Maryland Transportation Authority is in a familiar pickle. When revenues fall and costs increase, its options are limited. Despite some recent belt-tightening, authority members had little choice but to raise tolls to stay solvent and ensure that the authority's bond holders are not put at risk. What's notable about the MdTA's recently revealed plans is not the choice to charge drivers an extra $60 million a year so much as the policy decisions that are coming along for the ride. The agency wants to collect more from truck traffic and to reduce the generous subsidy given E-ZPass customers.
The E-ZPass move is hard to argue. For more than a decade, authority customers have gotten a free transponder and free account privileges on top of a major discount on tolls (a $2 tunnel trip costs a mere 40 cents). It was too good to last. More than 840,000 MdTA transponders are in use today - at a cost to the government of $21 each. That's a $17.6 million giveaway.
It's the same with the proposed $1.50 monthly charge that would begin July 1. It may have the look and feel of those annoying bank checking account fees, but it also seems modest when weighed against the convenience and cost-savings of E-ZPass. Other East Coast toll authorities are raising prices, too, and the MdTA plans to stop offering the alternative of discount commuter books anyway. One trip through the Fort McHenry Tunnel and you've made back your monthly fee.
Truckers have more reason to be displeased. Their tolls will rise substantially - from $8 to $12 for an 18-wheeler at the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, for instance. That's proposed to begin April 15.
The effect? Where truckers today account for about 10 percent of traffic but 32 percent of the toll revenue at the tunnels, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the other authority properties, they will soon produce about 38 percent of the income.
The move recognizes the reality that truckers haven't contributed quite enough in the past. Research shows that an 80,000-pound truck simply does far more damage to roads and bridges than a vehicle a fraction of its weight, and the toll schedule has never fully reflected that.
If there's one thing Americans are learning lately about everything from home loans to hedge funds, there are no free rides.