There wasn't much public in the public hearing held by the Maryland Transportation Authority last week in Beltsville on its proposed tolls on the just-around-the-corner Intercounty Connector.
A couple of dozen folks who might actually be described as public - not media, not state officials or contractors - took seats in the sparsely occupied cafeteria at High Point High School. But only a handful actually approached the microphone to share their views with the members of the authority's board. More than two hours into the hearing, only 11 people - three of them elected officials - had spoken, and the board was taking a break to see whether any stragglers would show before 9 p.m.
How should one interpret the non-outpouring of citizens at a hearing on a toll plan that could result in a peak-time charge of $12 to go from Interstate 95 to Interstate 270 and back? Does it imply acceptance or merely resignation?
There were a handful who took a leap of faith and tried to influence outcomes that were decided long ago.
Richard Landon of District Heights showed up to testify against any tolling. "We as taxpayers have already paid our share of taxes," he said.
Actually, we haven't.
At least, we haven't paid enough to build a $2.6 billion, six-lane highway through suburban Washington. The toll road vs. freeway issue was decided during the Ehrlich administration with the acquiescence of the General Assembly. Neither wanted to put their necks on the line to raise gas taxes, which haven't gone up since the early 1990s, to build the road as a freeway. It was either toll road or no road.
Prince George's Councilman Tom Dernoga, a longtime ICC opponent, showed up to give one more speech denouncing what is already a done deal. "This is an anti-working family proposal and an anti-working family road," he told the board.
Actually, there are many working families that make enough money to use the ICC. It just so happens that they tend to live in places other than Dernoga's Prince George's County district.
The fact is that since the ICC was revived in 2003, the plan has never been about transporting the poor or the middle class - except on an occasional emergency basis or by taking a bus. It was conceived as a road for the movers and shakers. It was designed to get the biotech executives of Montgomery County to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport without all those annoying traffic jams on the Capital Beltway or Randolph Road.
Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe those high-rollers will use the time they save to create more jobs in Maryland. Maybe BWI will prosper. And maybe the occasional teacher or blue-collar worker will choose to pay the toll on a day when they're running late to pick the kids up from day care, saving themselves a whopping penalty.
But in order for the ICC to work as promised, as a road where the traffic flows freely at all times, somebody has to be priced off it.
Someone like Ed Brenner, who told the board the planned tolls are exorbitant.
"Other than emergencies, I can't ever envision using it myself at the price that's proposed," the Beltsville resident said.
What Brenner was actually telling the board was that their proposal would work. The idea from the get-go was to price folks like him off the road. Sure, the proponents didn't stress that up front. It wasn't a great selling point.
Most of the old-time activists who fought the ICC for decades appear to have moved on. It was left to Greg Smith of Community Research Inc. to re-fight the old battles.
"It's a godawful waste of money," Smith said, as if that were the point of the hearing.
Smith came a little closer to the actual subject when he protested that the recommended rate range is higher than those outlined several years ago in an environmental study.
"This looks like a classic bait-and-switch. It's not fair to the public," he said.
As if fair had something to do with it.
The purpose of tolls is not to be fair. It's to pay off the bonds. The more revenue, the sooner the bonds can be paid off and the more money will be freed up for other uses.
Ronald Freeland, executive secretary of the authority, said the board wants to set a rate that would maximize traffic volume and revenue. That's far more in keeping with the board's role than trying to fashion some arbitrary measure of fairness.
Ultimately the market will decide whether the board set the tolls too high or too low.
Smith and other anti-ICC activists should welcome the steep tolls. The high cost of using that road guarantees it won't be a popular project after it fully opens in 2011-2012. And the ICC might inspire folks to ask questions the next time someone tries to sell them on a toll-financed mega-project that won't cost them anything in new taxes.