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What price for lower tolls?

Is the rollback of tolls really in Maryland's best interests? It's hard to tell without more information.

Whatever one might have thought about the Maryland Transportation Authority's decision to raise tolls four years ago, no one can say the two-phase proposal wasn't scrutinized from all angles or that the public wasn't given sufficient opportunity to ask questions or make comment. The same can't be said for the agency's decision to roll them back — in some cases below what they were before the last price increase.

That secrecy and abrupt decision-making should give Marylanders pause about what's going on at the agency that owns and manages some of the state's most important — and costly — transportation infrastructure, including Baltimore's harbor crossings, the Bay Bridge, the John F. Kennedy Highway and the Intercounty Connector. No details were made available to the public on Wednesday, but lo and behold, the MdTA board delivered the elaborate toll reduction plan, sign, sealed and delivered by Thursday morning.

Four years ago, MdTA officials pleaded for the toll increases and made the case that the agency wouldn't be able to meet its bond payments without them. It was strong medicine, particularly given the subsequent decision to raise the state's gas tax. But it was seen as fiscally responsible, especially given the massive borrowing required to build the ICC, a project greenlighted years earlier by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. And whatever negative effects the higher tolls might have caused, they weren't obvious — MdTA revenue turned out higher than projected.

So what's changed? According to the authority, the $54 million toll reduction (about 9 percent of the agency's total revenue) is made possible by "efficiencies" in the agency's operating and capital budgets such as cutting unfilled toll collector and police positions. But an analysis by legislature's fiscal advisers pegs the true cost of the reduction at $410.6 million over six years, with some of it coming from higher interest payments necessitated by increased borrowing. Lawmakers also strongly suspect it means certain future maintenance and expansion projects are likely to be delayed or scrapped. The most obvious candidate is the 74-year-old Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge that crosses the Potomac River in Southern Maryland, as the bridge's replacement is expected to cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

If there was truly $54 million of waste in the agency's annual budget, eliminating it should have been a high priority. But why is the money going to reduce tolls and not accelerate the Nice Bridge replacement, reduce costly government borrowing or to some other worthy transportation goal? Clearly, it was to allow Gov. Larry Hogan to fulfill his campaign promise to lower tolls — a pledge that was ill-considered at the time and is likely just as ill-considered now.

We don't doubt that many motorists will appreciate the reductions — which are appropriately geared to benefit state residents and E-ZPass holders most. Crossing the Bay Bridge for $2.50 round-trip (the new rate for E-ZPass Maryland customers) as of July 1 instead of the $5.40 they pay now means that some happy summer vacationers will actually be paying a toll lower than the $2.80 all drivers paid round-trip the day the facility opened in 1952. You can look it up. Did the bridge suddenly get shorter? Is there a sudden onset of economic deflation at Sandy Point?

Somehow we don't expect Delaware, New Jersey or other states along Interstate 95 to follow Maryland's lead with this first-ever rollback of tolls. The last round of toll increases merely put Maryland on par with those states. Now, we look like suckers, content to hand out deep discounts to commercial truckers, dropping rates 30 percent in some cases, for no apparent benefit other than the enrichment of large trucking companies that appear to be doing quite well already.

The main problem we have with Mr. Hogan's plan is the same problem we had with many of this proposals to lower taxes he presented during the last General Assembly session: The benefits did not clearly outweigh the costs. His plan to roll back the gas tax, for instance, would have cost the state $900 million in highway, bridge and transit projects over six years with little apparent benefit to the economy. Will lowering tolls create jobs or, conversely, might it mean eventually worsening traffic congestion that will make it harder on employers to do business? We don't know. The proposal was pushed through too fast to tell.

Perhaps Governor Hogan was worried that his plan wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. Maybe he was still too annoyed with how Democrats in the legislature thwarted much of his tax-cutting agenda just weeks ago. Whatever the reasoning, his proposal deserved the weeks of analysis and public debate that went into raising tolls in the first place. What we have instead is a pretty obvious political handout with uncertain benefits to the economy and an expectation that the agency's accumulated debt will rise from $1.873 billion to $2.118 billion by Fiscal 2021 as a result. That's a shame, not because we don't appreciate a lower toll (we do), but because we deserve to know the full consequences, good and bad, of this decision.

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