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Higher tolls expected to generate truck traffic

With all of the concerns surrounding MdTA's proposed toll increases on cars on the Susquehanna River bridges, few are looking at the potential impact on larger trucks and increased Conowingo Dam traffic.

The Conowingo Dam is one of the three bridges connecting Cecil and Harford counties, but is the only one without a toll.

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Harford County Councilman Chad Shrodes briefly discussed the impact in the northern parts of Harford County at the Jarrettsville-Norrisville Community Council last week, as did Keith Warner of the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

Local law enforcement do not have a traffic unit to monitor the situation, Warner said, and they are trying to get the state to assist them.

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"But, Chad's right," he added at the meeting, "it's only going to get worse."

The two bridges affected by tolls are the Tydings Memorial Bridge on I-95 and the Hatem Memorial Bridge on Route 40 connecting Harford County with Cecil County.

The $15 cash toll for a three-axle vehicle is proposed to increase to $18 on Jan. 1, 2012 and to $24 on July 1, 2013.

For four-axle vehicles, the rate is $23. That is expected to increase to $27 on Jan. 1, 2012 and $36 on July 1, 2013. Five-axle vehicles are being charged $30 now, with increases up to $36 on Jan. 1, 2012 and up to $48 on July 1, 2013 expected if passed. Six or more axle trucks will also see an increase from the $38 they are charged now for both bridges up to $45 on Jan. 1, 2012 and $60 on July 1, 2013.

Although residents, and Shrodes, believe this will increase truck traffic across the dam, Timothy Wirth, senior communications specialist for Exelon Power, the company that operates it, said he is not worried about the potential traffic.

"Any decision on the tolls would not have an impact to the operation of the dam," he wrote in an e-mail.

Shrodes still believes the toll rates will at least negatively affect area residents, since trucks are expected to travel on Route 1 to avoid higher tolls to cross the Susquehanna River.

Trucks passing through rural Harford County, he later wrote in an e-mail, has been a "hot button issue" that he has been working to fix. With the proposed increases, he added, the situation would only worsen.

"I am positive that these increases will have a detrimental effect to our quality of life and will only exasperate an issue that is already a big problem," he wrote. "Haulers/truckers will avoid paying these fees by detouring around the bridges with hefty tolls, by utilizing state roads and the historic Conowingo Dam; crossing right through the heart of rural northern Harford County."

At the Jarrettsville-Norrisville meeting, Warner confirmed that Darlington residents are already having problems on Darlington Road, which connects to Route 1 just south of the Conowingo Dam.

"We know it's an issue and we're working our way through it as well," Warner added.

The proposed toll increases were introduced to the public in early June and have seen a backlash since, with two overflowing public hearings in Harford and Cecil counties.

Most of the feedback has been about the higher cash toll rates for smaller vehicles that use the bridges, which are going from $5 to $6 on Oct. 1 and up to $8 on July 1, 2013.

The AVI decal for the Hatem Bridge allows unlimited trips on the bridge for $10 a year, which is proposed to be phased out, with E-ZPass commuter plans being instituted instead.

The E-ZPass discounted plan will offer unlimited trips for $36 a year starting in October, before increasing again to $72 per year in 2013.

Residents and elected officials have both spoken at the public hearings about how the increases will negatively impact the two counties. The Perryville meeting June 16 drew around 1,000 people protesting the tolls, several of whom were local politicians.

At the Havre de Grace meeting, in addition to many Harford delegates and county council members, one Cecil County resident, Stephanie Pope, said her husband worked for a small company with six trucks and they would not be able to "absorb" the estimated $5,000 increase per year in tolls for trucks.

"I will tell you right now in front of these people that I will go out of my way and use the [Conowingo] dam every time if I have to," she said at the June 27 meeting.

President Susie Comer of Comer Construction said the same thing — the increased tolls will have a "major" impact on her business, which uses 40 commercial vehicles, including dump trucks and some tractor-trailers. Although the company is based in Forest Hill, it serves Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware andNew Jersey.

The tolls, Comer said, are "killing" them.

"Between the fuel and the tolls it is just killing us," she said, adding that "just the downturn itself is enough."

As for whether they would consider the Conowingo Dam as an alternate route, Comer said they were already using other routes and would "absolutely" consider using additional ones, if the increases pass.

Because of the last toll increase "We're doing that now," she said. "When that kicks in, we will do it more."

The increased truck traffic will not only impact Harford County near the Conowingo Dam, but also Cecil County as well, specifically Port Deposit. Town Administrator Erika Quesenbery said there is already a problem with truck traffic through Port Deposit, much like Shrodes indicated in Harford County, and higher tolls will only make it worse.

"In Port Deposit we have already started seeing a dramatic increase in truck traffic and increases in tolls will certainly exacerbate this even further," she wrote in an e-mail.

Quesenbery continued with a long list of incidents in Port Deposit, from ripped down power lines to "tens of thousands of dollars of damage" to the historic Cecil National Bank when a Mack truck crashed into it in early June. The accident also knocked out power to that part of town.

Teri Moss, manager of operations and public safety media, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that "the MDTA is / will be performing traffic studies both before and after the toll increase at potential diversion routes. US 1 [Conowingo Dam] is one of the routes under study."

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