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The Maryland Transportation Authority shows no indication of reversing its plans to increase tolls on the Susquehanna River bridges and kill the frequent user AVI decal discount program, although local elected officials are still hoping for at least some compromise.

Harford and Cecil county State Sen. Nancy Jacobs, who met with MdTA board members after they testified at a Senate Budget and Tax Committee hearing in Annapolis on Tuesday, said they were sympathetic to residents' concerns.

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"I got the distinct impression that they now fully understand the problem that it creates for Cecil and Harford County to lose the AVI sticker," she said. "The [state transportation] secretary [Beverley Swaim-Staley] yesterday drove up into Harford and Cecil County. She went up and drove over the Conowingo Dam and over to [Interstate] 95 to see exactly what everybody was telling her, how difficult it is."

MdTA board members, explained to the Senate committee why they have to raise tolls and eliminate the unique AVI decal program, Jacobs said.

Jacobs, the Senate minority leader, has submitted her own plan requesting a modified E-ZPass program for the Hatem Bridge that is much less costly that what MdTA has proposed.

"They [MdTA] said they don't have a lot of wiggle room because what they are doing is paying debt service, and so they know they have to raise X amount of dollars," she said. "They are going to have to do these toll increases, they said."

Jacobs is proposing charging an initial $10 yearly for an E-ZPass over the Hatem Bridge, on Route 40 between Havre de Grace and Perryville, and later raising it to $15.

Her plan also would exempt frequent bridge-users from having to deposit $25 in their E-Zpass accounts, offer them free transponders and would distinguish between different types of multi-axle vehicles in order to lower the cost for recreational vehicles and trailers.

The current AVI program costs $10 for unlimited travel over the bridge. MdTA wants to switch frequent users to E-Zpass accounts where they would pay $36 annually until July 1, 2013, when the annual toll would increase to $72. Motorists would be responsible for buying the E-Zpass transponder and paying the monthly E-Zpass account fee, currently $1.50. Multi-axle vehicles would pay the going rate, regardless of their use, a proposal that has many sportsmen and business owners who serve both sides of the river up in arms.

"Part of my problem is one-third of the debt service is the [InterCounty Connector in Montgomery County] and to me, this is a lot of [what's] typical of the way the government does business," Jacobs said of the MdTA justification for the toll increase. "They went ahead and did it [the connector] when they didn't have a way to pay for it."

Then-governor Robert Ehrlich broke ground on the ICC in 2006, when Jacobs, as well as a number of other Cecil and Harford legislators who are now bashing the toll hike, were also in Annapolis.

Asked about that time period when the ICC was forged, Jacobs just said, "I think it was in the budget."

She noted that Swaim-Staley admitted it was not a great idea to raise tolls just a few years after tolls on I-95 were raised – by Ehrlich, while tolls on some state bridges and tunnels, like the Bay Bridge, stayed the same.

"She said that's their fault, they made a mistake, they should have been raising them all at the same time and they wouldn't be in the predicament they are now," Jacobs said.

Late last week, Harford County Executive David Craig jumped into the fray and mentioned his opposition to MdTA's toll proposal on the Tom Marr Show on Talk Radio 680 WCBM.

"It's a tremendous burden, particularly on people who live in Cecil County… About 90 percent of the people who drive across the Hatem Bridge are local residents. They are going to work, they are going to shop, they are maybe people from Harford County going to Perry Point [VA Hospital]," Craig said. "It really joins the communities of Perryville, Havre de Grace, Port Deposit. We get along well with each other. This is really going to be detrimental to everything that happens."

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Craig, a Republican, as is Jacobs, has all but officially announced he is running for governor in 2014. He's a lifelong resident of Havre de Grace and well familiar with the bridge politics that have been part of the town's history.

Speaking on the radio July 22, Craig pointed out that delegates and senators, both Democrat and Republican, who represent the region, "are all unified on this issue, that a Maryland resident needs to have a different rate than [residents from] other states [who use the bridge]."

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