Workers carefully move the large cross beam of the gantry into place at the foot of the Hatem Bridge on Rt. 40 in Havre de Grace earlier this month. The structure will house various equipment as the tolls will be collected through E-ZPass devices or by video tolling beginning in late October.
Workers carefully move the large cross beam of the gantry into place at the foot of the Hatem Bridge on Rt. 40 in Havre de Grace earlier this month. The structure will house various equipment as the tolls will be collected through E-ZPass devices or by video tolling beginning in late October. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

The Hogan administration’s attitude toward highway, bridge and tunnel tolls has long been bewildering. On the one hand, Gov. Larry Hogan proudly lowered tolls statewide four years ago as part of his “open for business” philosophy. On the other, he recently endorsed a plan to create private toll lanes on Interstate 270 and eventually the Capital Beltway that could charge motorists as much as $40 during peak travel times. Are tolls good or bad? Are they too high or too low? What’s their proper role in relieving traffic congestion? The governor seems to be of two minds on the subject.

That dichotomy was underscored this summer as the Maryland Transportation Authority announced plans to cut toll collection costs through technology. Instead of depending on toll collectors, the MdTA may soon rely on a combination of existing E-ZPass transponders along with video cameras to read license plates and bill customers’ credit cards directly. There’s nothing wrong with so-called “toll modernization,” as other states have moved in that direction as well, but Governor Hogan has apparently decided that at least $28.1 million in savings over the first five years from the new system will be used to reduce tolls with just $25 million or so for capital improvements. Altogether, it’s the third example of toll-cutting if one counts the E-ZPass transponder giveaway of last year. And while paying less sounds appealing, it ignores the bigger picture.

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Take, for example, the recent announcement by state transportation officials that a planned renovation of the U.S. 301 bridge across the Potomac River won’t necessarily have a promised bike lane. As recently reported by Maryland Matters, the Hogan administration is pleading transportation poverty with no guarantee it can find the money to build the bike/pedestrian lane it promised as recently as three years ago. And even if the bike lane was no longer a priority, why not use more of the extra money on other transportation improvements given that the D.C. area was recently identified as among the most congested regions in the country (with Baltimore not far behind, ranked at 22nd of 101 cities examined by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute)? Or at least pay down billions in outstanding capital bonds so future projects can be made more affordable?

The obvious answer is that Governor Hogan and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly (many of whom represent rural areas where toll facilities like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at Sandy Point or Thomas J. Hatem Bridge across the Susquehanna River that residents regard as especially irksome) think they can score political points with their base. Never mind that much of the benefit of lower tolls falls to truckers and out-of-state drivers who can afford to pay more. Or that the consumer savings are often quite illusory. Did Southern Maryland prosper when the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge toll fell 90 cents round trip in 2015? And what is the cost if the U.S. 301 replacement crossing is delayed or diminished? Getting stuck in gridlock can be a lot more expensive than any toll reduction can offset.

We’re all for running the transportation system more efficiently, but that’s not really what’s going on here. If anything, the Hogan administration’s approach to transportation has been more about rewarding its political allies (generally with road construction money) while punishing its opponents (by the Baltimore area’s Red Line project, for example). Perhaps the governor even told his counterparts from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire at that National Governors Association infrastructure summit in Boston this week about how many voters can be distracted by a 90-cent toll discount while congestion woes mount.

The fact is Mr. Hogan has had something of a free ride when it comes to transportation. Six years ago, then-Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law a major gas tax increase, the first in 20 years, and his successor has been reaping the political rewards of that without ever having to make such a difficult choice. But there’s a limit to how far that money can be stretched. Today, the state’s transportation needs are outpacing its revenues once again, and transit expansion opportunities are being neglected. And what is this governor most intent on doing about that? Either lowering tolls or authorizing Lexus Lanes. That’s not a coherent strategy. Saving pennies on tolls in one location while expecting drivers to be billed exorbitant sums for tolls at another only makes sense if your goal is to please a certain political constituency. Maryland deserves a more rational and sustainable long-range plan for transportation.

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