(UPDATE 2:06 p.m.) The Maryland Transportation Authority took one step closer toward making it dramatically more expensive to utilize state tunnels and bridges after its board formally recommended Thursday the largest toll increase in state history.
Under the proposal, tolls for passenger cars on the Bay Bridge would, beginning Oct. 1, increase from $2.50 to $5 and eventually would increase to $8 on July 1, 2013.
In addition, the cost for a one-way toll on the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Harbor Tunnel and the Key Bridge would jump from $2 to $3 on Oct. 1 and then $4 on July 1, 2013.
Other toll increases set for Oct. 1 include the John F. Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Memorial Bridge going from $5 to $6 and the Harry W. Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland increasing from $3 to $5. All three would then cost $8 on July 1, 2013.
Finally, there will also be increases for E-Z Pass users and commuters along with a video toll rate for vehicles traveling through a toll plaza without a valid E-ZPass or cash payment. The video rate would replace the existing $3 notice of toll due fee and would be 25 percent higher than the proposed cash rates.
MDTA Chairman and Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said the increases are necessary as the authority is faced with significant costs for the rehabilitation of aging infrastructure and the construction of additional highway capacity in the Baltimore and Washington regions.
The proposed plan to increase tolls is expected to generate approximately $77 million in the first fiscal year for the self-supported agency that finances, owns, operates and maintains Maryland’s eight toll facilities.
“There are two key forces driving this proposal: paying for major construction work needed to keep these large, aging and expensive facilities both safe and operational and paying for additional highway capacity now under construction in the Baltimore and Washington regions,” said Swaim-Staley in a statement. “The bottom line is that the MDTA’s tunnels, bridges and turnpikes are financially supported through tolls and not the state’s Transportation Trust Fund or General Fund.
"The additional revenue is needed to meet the current and future needs of these facilities. The plan allows Maryland to offer some of the most generous commuter discounts in the country and keeps overall toll rates comparable with those elsewhere in the region.”
Among the state projects requiring funding include:
- $132 million in repairs for the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge (US 40)
- $121 million in work for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway (I-95)
- $225 million in repairs to the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge (US 50/301)
- $410 million in work for the three Baltimore Harbor crossings – the Fort McHenry (I-95, I-395) and Baltimore Harbor (I-895) tunnels and the Francis Scott Key Bridge (I-695)
- $21 million in repairs to the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge (US 301).
In addition, the MDTA is constructing two major projects to address traffic congestion in Maryland. They include the Express Toll Lanes along I-95 in the Baltimore region and the Intercounty Connector in the Washington region.
“The MDTA Board has scaled back projects and reduced expenses to delay an increase in tolls as long as possible,” said Louise P. Hoblitzell, senior MDTA Board Member in a statement. “However, the time has come when additional revenue is required to keep pace with the cost of constructing and maintaining our facilities.
"There is never a good time to increase tolls, but we have a fiscal responsibility, let alone a legal obligation, to pay our bills. How to lessen the impact on our customers and families has been at the heart of Board discussions.”
According to MDTA officials, commuter toll rates were last raised in 1985 for Baltimore toll facilities and in 1983 for the Bay and Nice bridges. Also, toll rates for passenger vehicles were last raised in 2003 at the Baltimore toll facilities, the Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Bridge and in 2001 at the Nice Bridge.
In fact, the Bay Bridge toll rate for passenger vehicles is lower now than when the original span opened in 1952, when drivers of passenger cars paid $2.80 round trip, plus $.25 per passenger.
Toll rates for vehicles with three or more axles were last raised at all facilities in 2009.
The MDTA has opened a 60-day public comment period that will last through Aug. 1.
The public can submit comments for the official record via a web form at www.mdta.maryland.gov or by writing to MDTA Toll Comments, 2310 Broening Highway, Baltimore, MD 21224.
The MDTA Board also will hold nine public hearings throughout the state to receive public and private testimony on the proposal. This includes one set for June 21 at Dundalk Middle School, 7400 Dunmanway.
Elected officials from both parties have been critical of the proposed increases, citing a fragile economy still recovering from the recession as well as the negative impact it would have on workers and business owners on the Eastern Shore.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican has also voiced his outrage over the proposal. The freshman legislator represents Middle River along with the Eastern Shore as part of the First Congressional District.
“Maryland families and job creators, particularly on the Eastern Shore, cannot afford another tax hike by the big spenders in Annapolis,” said Harris in a . “Governor O’Malley’s administration does not have a revenue problem—they have a spending problem.”
Harris' spokesman, Ryan Nawrocki, said the congressman wiill host a news conference at 1 p.m. on Monday at the Hatem Memorial Bridge to discuss the proposal. He will be joined by State Sens. Nancy Jacobs and E.J. Pipkin among other critics of the plan.
"Governor O'Malley said during the re-election campaign that a fee is a tax and I'm not so sure what's different now," Nawrocki said. "These facilities have been paid for and are making money every year.
"These increases will place a significant strain on commuters and businesses that utilize these facilities. This is nothing more than another disincentive for businesses to hire more workers."
Del. John Olszewski Jr. is among those Democrats opposed to the plan.
"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," said Olszewski Jr., in a for Patch.