A committee of the Maryland Transportation Authority recently issued a recommendation that put the issue of toll increases front and center.
Those of us living in close proximity to toll facilities are especially sensitive to toll costs. The full board plans to consider the proposal during its meeting in early June.
In the meantime, I hope you will join me to loudly advocate our opposition.
As proposed, the toll increases would come in two phases: Oct. 1 of this year, and then again on July 1, 2013. Users of the harbor crossings – the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge – currently pay $4 for a round trip. The Authority’s plan would make that $6 in October and $8 in mid-2013.
The Bay Bridge also sees an increase, with tolls eventually going up to $8.
It is important to understand what is being proposed, and it is also important to understand why.
Prior to my election, then-Gov. Ehrlich pitched the idea, approved by those in the General Assembly, that having major toll-financed projects would be relatively painless. The largest driver of the costs in Ehrlich’s plans, the Intercounty Connector (ICC) in the Washington suburbs, requires that tolls help cover the whopping $2.6 billion price tag.
During the 2007 Special Session, recognizing that the ICC would likely lead to significant toll hikes, I co-sponsored legislation entitled, “Transportation - Intercounty Connector - Elimination of Funding.” The bill’s title is self-explanatory, and it would have prevented hundreds of millions of dollars in new debt being issued to fund the project, as well as prevented tens of millions of dollars from being diverted from the Transportation Trust Fund for the same purpose.
I have also supported legislation that takes away the independent ability of the Authority to set and raise tolls without legislative approval. These measures have failed in years past.
Making the increased toll rate on the “occasional” user even worse is the fact that residents of our area that regularly use the facilities will be unable to escape the sting: a large increase in commuter rates is also being proposed.
Historically, the silver lining of toll increases has been the option of utilizing a commuter plan, which reduced out-of-pocket costs. At Baltimore-area tolls, the current $4 round trip costs those on commuter plans just 80 cents. If the proposed changes are enacted, Baltimore-area commuter tolls will jump to $1.80 in October and $2.80 in two years.
For a weekly commuter, that is a 250 percent increase – from $4 to $14 a week. Over the course of a year, that is a $520 increase. I find this outrageous.
In the weeks ahead, the Authority is required to provide opportunities for public input. I encourage you to do so, and my office is happy to provide you with information about these meetings. I will personally be expressing my displeasure with the recommendations for toll increases – especially at the commuter level – and I will revisit legislation, not only to combat toll increases, but also to challenge the current process that leaves lawmakers on the sideline.