May 15, 2011

Transportation officials say ICC is not to blame for toll hikes

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Fort McHenry Tunnel toll plaza.

Fort McHenry Tunnel toll plaza.

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.”

  • marge

    Whose responsible for digging into the funds for other projects called “new americans”?  The thievery and corruption this state has continues.. As long as we have democrat liberal voters who are too stupid to see through the lies and bs, we will always be in the red.. Taxpayers pay $2 billion a year to new americans including “illegal aliens” and now  that taxpayers have to pay for instate tuition for illegal aliens kids, expect more taxes, fines fees. Why don’t they see that the high price in gas, utilities, sales tax, red light scams, speed cameras and all the extra bs is attributed to corrupt politicians who have deep pockets and “new american Illegals, are to blame?  FYI, I am now almost a senior and have been a democrat for many years who now votes with caution and research..

  • Anonymous

    Another example of how Maryland officials bungle just about anything they touch. What has MDOT & MTA been doing with the tolls collected during the boom times when they were pushing “Reach the Beach” & EZ tags to increase traffic? Aren’t some of these roads & bridges a part of the Federal Interstate Highway system thereby receiving our Federal tax dollars?  Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley doesn’t see the connection between the public anger at these massive toll increases during a recession with gasoline hovering near $4 a gallon. We should be grateful that the increases are not higher while we sit in long lines at the toll booths & EZ pass lanes trying to get to work to keep paying  the taxes that support government.

     As for the talking head from the IBTTA, I wouldn’t use Ohio as an example. Those angry motorists have voted with their feet & abandoned Ohio’s dying economy over the past 5 years.A new administration is attempting to reverse the decline.

    Where was the MSM in reporting this growing “crisis” in MD? To many taxpayers & motorists, the massive increases are just another $$ raising scheme in a long line of revenue collection scams. Instead of using the $$ in the transportation fund to pay for transportation issues, governors & the legislature used the $$ to add programs for selected groups to get votes. The sheeple who continue to blindly vote for Democrats without thinking have put ALL Maryland residents in jeopardy.

  • Pragmatist

    35 years without a price increase!  35 years!  Amazing.  Marge, your conspiracy theory is comical.

  • A Harford county resident

    Not all tolls have stayed the same! That’s great that I can reach the beach for $2.50 but the toll over the Hatem Bridge keeps going up. Now they are talking about doing away with the bridge sticker. There is no bus service between Harford and Cecil counties. The Marc is only useful if you live in Perryville and work in Baltimore. An extra $6 a day to get to work would be a disaster for people who are already on the brink. The “alternative”  toll free route is the Conowingo dam and a 24 mile detour.  

  • Simeon Owens

    Such an incredible amount of money is collected daily for Maryland tolls. Which has one of the worst designed highway systems. I’m amazed that they are spending all of that money and need more. Why not get rid of some of those tunnel cops in brand new cars? There’s a cop every quarter mile around the tunnels and bridges. What is the need for that many cops? So many always with new cars. Was there no savings by getting rid of half of the tollbooth Willey’s?