With few details public, MdTA board to vote on toll reductions Thursday

Tolls could soon decrease in Maryland

Transportation officials in Maryland are poised to approve a reduction of tolls on state highways, bridges and tunnels this week — though the move has not been discussed publicly and few details were available Wednesday.

The board of the Maryland Transportation Authority has scheduled a special meeting Thursday to discuss toll-reduction recommendations drafted recently by MdTA staff at the urging of Gov. Larry Hogan, officials said.

"It's not a secret that Governor Hogan has asked our board to look at toll reductions, and staff has been working since we've gotten that call on recommendations for [the board] to look at," said Cheryl Sparks, a spokeswoman for the MdTA.

Some state lawmakers criticized the lack of notice and discussion about the move.

"So far, I haven't gotten any details on exactly what this toll decrease would mean," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "I'm very concerned."

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said he was in the dark on the details and questioned whether Hogan, a Republican, was sacrificing the MdTA's long-term fiscal health for political gain.

"It's another unfortunate game, another ploy by the Hogan administration to play government by press release," Madaleno said.

Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said she could not predict what the MdTA board would do. "But one thing is certain," she said. "Governor Hogan is committed to giving hardworking Maryland taxpayers relief by rolling back burdensome taxes and tolls."

Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn, who acts as chairman of the MdTA board, and the board's eight appointed members must vote on any toll change but are expected to approve a decrease, Sparks said.

The details of the proposal were not available. Sparks said she could not disclose details before the plan is put before the board, including when any approved toll reductions would take effect.

The MdTA is funded through toll revenue and is responsible for operating, maintaining and improving the state's toll facilities, including such key transportation infrastructure as the Bay Bridge and the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

Sparks said the board called a special meeting to allow it to focus on the toll issue "rather than routine agenda items" that must be discussed at scheduled meetings.

The proposal has been less publicized than past plans to increase tolls, though a toll reduction could have implications for the agency's ability to fund major transportation projects and initiatives, including the planned replacement of the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge that carries U.S. 301 over the Potomac River to Virginia.

Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, has been a leading proponent of replacing the bridge and sent a letter to Rahn on Wednesday asking for more information about the toll-reduction proposal, saying it appeared "hastily conceived."

Middleton wrote that while it "may be politically expedient to reduce tolls," the move could have "unintended consequences" for the Nice bridge project and "would not be fair to the Charles County and Southern Maryland motorists who depend on" the bridge.

He called on the MdTA to delay any decision on a toll reduction until after a "full and thorough analysis" of its effect on the project and opportunity for public comment.

Madaleno said language in the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act that awaits Hogan's expected signature prevents the governor from using general transportation funding to supplement revenue lost as a result of a toll decrease. Subsequently, lost revenue must be made up through increased state debt, decreased construction on new projects or other cost containment measures, he said.

"What is most frustrating to me is, we don't know what it means for diminished quality of our transportation network," Madaleno said.

State policy analysts have warned that a large reduction in tolls could throw off the debt-service ratios that enable the authority to maintain a stellar bond rating.

Hogan has criticized toll increases under Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, which analysts said helped pay for bonds that financed projects launched by O'Malley's predecessor, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Upon taking office, Hogan said his administration would review toll rates.

Madaleno said a toll reduction by Hogan would only force him or his successor to increase tolls in the future, just as O'Malley did following Ehrlich's decisions.

"We're just going to get into this cycle of using tolls as a game of 'gotcha' politics," Madaleno said.

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