Blame the ICC, failed leadership for massive toll increase

When the Chesapeake Bay Bridge (now properly known as the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge) opened in 1952, motorists paid $2.80 for a round-trip. Had that Opening Day toll been tied to inflation, the same commute would cost $23.61 today.

That's one perspective on the Maryland Transportation Authority's proposed toll increases, which would raise the Bay Bridge toll from $2.50 to $8 and double tolls on other MdTA facilities, including the Baltimore Harbor crossings. Here's another: The state borrowed too heavily to build the Intercounty Connector and now motorists everywhere are going to be penalized for that mistake.

That the authority has to raise tolls is unquestionable. The state is on the hook for the bonds that were required to build the ICC, the expansion of I-95 in the Baltimore area and other costly projects over the years. Much of the authority's inventory is aging, and the agency faces major system preservation and rehabilitation costs. The bill is coming due, and deferring it will only cause the bonds to be rated lower and the borrowing costs to increase.

But the scale of the increase — a 50 percent hike this year followed by a 33 percent raise in 2013 at the Harbor tunnels and Key Bridge, for example — is ludicrous. It represents a failure on the part of elected officials, current and past, to ensure that tolls kept pace with costs, and now commuters are going to suffer at a time of record-high fuel prices.

Just as Baltimore Gas & Electric customers suffered when a cap on rates was lifted a half-decade ago, Maryland's choice to keep tolls low, while perhaps politically expedient at the time, came with a consequence: Toll shock today. A $4 daily surcharge on commuting is bad enough, but when it's accompanied by $4-a-gallon gasoline prices, motorists are left behind the veritable 8-ball.

Make no mistake, Baltimore was destined to see a $4 toll on the Harbor tunnels eventually. Just look around at similar toll facilities along the East Coast. The Delaware Memorial Bridge toll is expected to be raised to $4 later this year, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is $13, and the major New York City crossings are $8.

The recession may have made matters worse by reducing traffic while higher petroleum prices have raised the cost of road and bridge repair. But the authority's finances would still be in better shape if not for the $2.6 billion ICC, the most expensive toll road project ever undertaken by the agency. The choice to borrow so heavily to build the controversial highway was made during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Yet of all the proposed changes, the most potentially punitive would seem to be at the Bay Bridge, where an $8 toll — after decades frozen at either $1.25 one-way or the current $2.50 round-trip — is bound to have consequences. It is possible, for instance, that home buyers or small business owners who might have considered relocating to the Eastern Shore (but have jobs on the western side of the bay) might be scared off, a move that could adversely impact the local real estate market and economy.

How much easier it might have been had the authority simply raised the toll by $1 every decade or so and spent any surplus paying off the bonds. But alas, no time machine is available to correct this failing, and so the state would seem to have little choice.

As Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley observed, some minor tinkering with the proposed toll increase can be done between now and this summer, but the authority needs to collect the money one way or another.

With Gov. Martin O'Malley looking to shore up the state's depleted Transportation Trust Fund as early as this fall, the toll fiasco ought to provide a lesson: Better to take distasteful medicine a little bit at a time then have to swallow hard on a big dose later. With the state in need of $40 billion to pay for with planned highway, transit, port and airport projects, there's clearly some more bitter pills for taxpayers coming soon.