By Megan Poinski
Large increases in tolls on Maryland’s bridges and tunnels were proposed last week, but Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said angry motorists should not be directing their blame at the new Intercounty Connector.
They should look around at the state’s other toll roads, bridges and tunnels, and see the maintenance that needs to be done on them. Swaim-Staley, who also chairs the Maryland Transportation Authority, told MarylandReporter.com that people are not looking at the bigger picture. The Maryland Transportation Authority operates and maintains all of the state’s toll roads, bridges and tunnels.
“We are at the very low end of what the authority can charge for sophisticated facilities like these, especially our bridges and tunnels,” she said. “Many of them are 50 to 70 years old, and are major links in our state.”
Because they are 50 to 70 years old, she said, those major links are overdue for major rehabilitation. The toll increases would raise more than $200 million for the authority over the next four years, and the money would be used to help pay bondholders on work on the new projects – like the ICC, which will link I-270 to I-95 from Rockville to Laurel, and the I-95 lane expansion north of Baltimore – as well as to do much-needed work on some of the older ones.
Swaim-Staley said that some people don’t realize that rehabilitating older bridges or tunnels is close to rebuilding them. To put things into perspective, she said, the westbound second span of the Bay Bridge was built in the 1970s for $145 million. To rehabilitate it today – just for redecking and painting – costs $172 million.
Of course, the estimated $2.5 billion total price tag for the ICC does add to the amount that the Transportation Authority needs to make. Swaim-Staley said that she cannot break down how much of the increase is needed for new projects and how much would go toward rehabilitating existing facilities.
The fact that these increases came at all should not be a surprise to anyone, Swaim-Staley said. Ideas of what they might be were plainly laid out in February to a subcommittee of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. The authority has known that there would be a toll increase in fiscal year 2012, and has been calculating how much it could be for years.
“Believe it or not, the increase has been going down,” she said.
Through substantial budgeting moves – including cuts to the planned capital improvements and growing the operating budget – the authority has been able to reduce the “average increase” projected for a driver on a toll facility. At one point, she said, the authority would have needed to raise an average of $2 more in tolls for each driver. Now, she said, the authority only needs to raise an average of $1.50 more per driver.
Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, said that a large jump in tolls is not unheard of elsewhere, and that the rates proposed for Maryland seem reasonable. The IBTTA is an international association for administrations that manage and operate toll facilities.
Instead of concentrating on the amount that tolls will increase, Gray said Maryland motorists should look at how long tolls have stayed the same, and how low they have been. On the Bay Bridge, for example, the current toll of $2.50 is actually less than the $2.80 charged to cross when it was first opened in the 1960s. The toll has stayed at the current rate for 35 years. Gray said that being able to sustain such a low toll for such a long time is “awesome.”
However, people hearing that they will soon have to pay $5 to make the same crossing is understandably upsetting, Gray said. Most states raise their tolls more gradually as time goes on, so drivers are not suddenly hit with huge increases. But, he said, Ohio faced the same problem about five years ago. After holding its turnpike tolls at the same level for decades, tolls had to increase in order to expand the roads, leaving many angry motorists.
Increasing tolls both to pay for new projects and rehabilitate old ones is also common in the tolling world, Gray said. “Eventually, like a roof on a house, … you have to replace it,” he said.
But loud criticism of the toll increases has already started. Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, put out a statement soon after they were announced. He has unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation that would require the Transportation Authority to get legislative approval for any toll increases.
“There is something very wrong with a system that allows appointed officials, answerable to only their bond holders and the governor, to tax Marylanders,” Pipkin said. “As far as I’m concerned, anything that takes money out of Marylanders’ pockets is a tax. Calling it a toll increase or a fee increase makes it no less a tax.”
The Sun’s Michael Dresser in a posting Sunday says Maryland’s “era of cheap tolls is over.”