February 25, 2011

Higher tolls coming on bridges, tunnels and highways

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Fort McHenry Tunnel toll plaza.

Public hearings about toll increases on several of Maryland’s tolled roads and bridges will start in the next few months, Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley told a Senate budget subcommittee on Thursday.

Toll increases are always unpopular, but now they are very necessary, Swaim-Staley told the Public Safety, Transportation and Environment Subcommittee of the Senate’s committee on Budget and Taxation. The Maryland Transportation Authority, which is responsible for the state’s toll roads, tunnels and bridges, has taken on additional debt to do several long-awaited projects in the last couple of years, and now has an additional $53 million of annual debt service. Much of that debt service will be covered by tolls.

Swaim-Staley pointed out that the proposed toll increase should not be a surprise. She said the last several reports to General Assembly committees have predicted toll increases in 2012. However, the size of the projected increases has been decreasing.

“We thought in ‘09 it would be $1.35. Now, we’re thinking 75 cents or less,” Swaim-Staley said. “This is mostly because of the way we pushed on our operating budget. But it is coming nonetheless, and we will make sure the community has the opportunity to comment.”

According to a report by legislative analysts (page 34), depending on the scenario, the toll increases could range from 25% to 100% in some cases.

Many critics of toll increases have pointed to the new 18-mile InterCounty Connector, which will connect I-270 with I-95 between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The first stretch of the road, which will have tolls collected by electronic means, opened this week. Swaim-Staley said that the ICC has been the most visible new project for the authority, but not the only one. Work is underway to build new express toll lanes on the tolled portion of I-95, and recent projects have rehabilitated the Bay Bridges, the Hatem Bridge, and the Canton Viaduct.

While the authority is doing more work – and taking on more debt – than it traditionally has, Swaim-Staley said that part of that has to do with economic conditions. The authority was able to lock in a 2% interest rate on much of the money it borrowed, which she said is an unprecedented low.

There will be a lengthy process to inform the public about new tolls and get their feedback on what may be implemented, Swaim-Staley said. Currently, most tolls in the state are assessed simply. There is one price for a regular vehicle traveling on the road, regardless of the time of day and the method of payment – though commuters can get discounts on their tolls. Tolls have not been assessed on the ICC yet, but they will be based on factors such as the time of day and whether a motorist is using an EZ Pass device to electronically pay the toll.

The toll increase could be added to the current amounts paid, or it could be implemented in other ways. Analysts from the Department of Legislative Services presented a menu of different options. They include a 25% across-the-board increase, dividing the toll increase amount by those who pay in cash, those who pay by EZ Pass, and those who are frequent commuters. Under this scenario, EZ Pass users would pay the smallest percentage increase, since EZ Passes require users to purchase equipment and keep current accounts. Another idea applies an average increase to each type of vehicle, and a fourth splits all tolls rates like the ICC, based on the time of day and whether the vehicle has an EZ Pass.

The authority’s fiscal forecast predicts additional toll increases in fiscal years 2014 and 2016.