Getting There: Proposed toll hikes draw hostile reception

A proposal to impose the largest toll increases in the state's history received a hostile reception from residents Monday night as the Maryland Transportation Authority brought its proposal to Baltimore for public comment.

Several dozen people turned out for the hearing at Digital Harbor High School, though a relative handful signed up to speak. Those who did were almost unanimous in their opposition to the authority's two-phase proposal to raise tolls in October and again in July 2013.

The plan would raise the cash price of a round trip through most of the state's toll facilities to $8 over the next two years.

"It really grinds my gears," said Mike Beczkowski of Baltimore. "We're in the middle of an economic recession, and people can't afford this."

Nicole Dewald of Baltimore warned that the proposed increases would harm the city.

"I don't think Baltimore City can afford additional barriers to people visiting the city," she said. "The timing of this is horrendous, coming at a time when gas prices are so outrageous."

Former state Sen. George W. Della Jr. criticized the process by which the authority developed its plan.

"You have not made a case," he said. "The burden is on you to prove you need these increases."

Brian Lutz of Chase spoke for a particularly aggrieved class of customers when he lambasted the extra tolls charged for vehicles towing trailers. Lutz complained that when he hooks a single-axle kayak to his pickup truck, he has to pay $15 rather than the $5 toll for a passenger vehicle with no trailer. Under the proposal, that rate would go to $18 in October and $24 in 2013.

"Who in this state does not like recreational fishermen, hunters, campers?" he asked.

Richard Morris of Catonsville had a suggestion that's unlikely to be adopted.

"I suggest, why don't we just clean house, get rid of everybody and make the tolls free," he told the board members.

The hearing was the second of nine the authority will hold around the state.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley, who chairs the authority board, said she was surprised by the relatively sparse turnout for the Baltimore hearing. But she said she's expecting more fireworks at hearings Wednesday night in Stevensville and Thursday night in Perryville, where opposition has centered on increases at the Bay Bridge and Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge.

"That's where the bulk of the responses we've been getting so far" have come from, Swaim-Staley said. "It's been from Kent Island and Harford and Cecil counties."

The board's proposal is intended to raise $77 million in new revenue in the 2012 budget year; $119 million in 2013; and $132 million in 2014.

She said that the overall size of the package can't be changed much because the authority has to honor its commitments, but the public's input could bring changes in the details of the plan.

Under the plan, the tolls for passenger vehicles at the three Baltimore harbor crossings would go from the current $2 to $3 in October and $4 in 2013. Tolls at the two tunnels and the Key Bridge are collected in both directions, while tolls at most other facilities are collected in one direction only.

The toll at the Bay Bridge, now set at $2.50 for a round trip, would go to $5 in October and to $8 in 2013. The cost of using the John F. Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Bridge, now $5 collected northound only, would go to $6 in October and $8 two years later.

For many Marylanders, the issue of tolls is intertwined with taxes. Many are aware that the governor and General Assembly have dipped into the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which is funded by taxes and fees, to balance the general fund budget.

To open the meeting, Swaim-Staley emphasized the separation between the authority and the fund.

"Tolls are not shared with the Transportation Trust Fund or the general fund either," Swaim-Staley said. Nor, she said, does the authority receive tax money or federal aid.

In addition to the increases, the board's proposal would make several changes to the way Maryland charges tolls. Among these, it would:

•Give users of Maryland-issued E-ZPasses a 10 percent discount on tolls paid in cash.

•Scale back Maryland's commuter discounts, which are now among the most generous in the country. They would be cut to 70 percent of the cash rate in October and 65 percent in 2013. For a commuter using one of the harbor crossings in both directions, that would mean a daily increase from 80 cents now to $1.80 in October and $2.80 in 2013.

•Eliminate the decal system at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on the Susquehanna River, which lets frequent users pay $10 for unlimited use of that crossing for a year. The plan would replace the decals with an E-ZPass-based system under which users would pay $36 a year starting Oct. 1 and $72 a year starting in 2013.

•Replace the current $3 fee for mailing notices of tolls due with a 25 percent surcharge. That percentage would be added to the toll on vehicles that use the ICC without E-ZPasses and get a camera-generated bill in the mail, as well as to users of other toll facilities who go through E-ZPass lanes and whose payments don't register. The effect would be to lower the cost for drivers of personal vehicles and to increase them for large trucks that pay higher per-axle tolls.

Board member Mike Lewin said the toll facility system has identified $600 million to $1 billion of needed maintenance.

"If a bridge falls down, let me tell you, you know what the outcome of that is going to be," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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