June 14, 2011

Baltimore hearing on tolls a yawner – but some getting a free ride

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For the second hearing on the proposed fat toll hikes, a grand total of six people testified in Baltimore on Monday evening, wrapping up the meeting of the Maryland Transportation Authority in about 45 minutes. That was 20% more witnesses than the five people who testified at last week’s hearing in Shady Grove.

The testimony was predictably negative. Who comes to a hearing about tolls going up 50 to 100%, or even 300% to support the increases, after all?

Opponents of toll hikes wave to drivers.

Opponents of toll hikes wave to drivers.

“We’re in the middle of an economic recession and people can’t afford this,” said Mike Beczkowski of Baltimore. “You’re not looking at the impact on the economy.”

Some of the most intriguing testimony in the three minutes each witness was allotted came from John Cutonilli, who said commuters were barely paying the costs of collecting their tolls and 58% of the motorists don’t pay tolls at all.

“Why isn’t everyone paying their fair share?” asked Cutonilli, who said commuters using the tunnels and bridges were being subsidized $42 million a year. He also noted the MdTA police patrolled BWI Airport and the Motor Vehicle Administration, and there are no tolls there.

After the hearing, members of the board – four of the eight showed up, including Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley – said they would look into Cutonilli’s claim that it cost about the same for a person to collect a toll as it did to process an EZ-Pass payment – 39 cents versus 37 cents.

Once Swaim-Staley understood what Cutonilli was saying, she conceded that motorists “are using a lot of the facilities for free.”

According to Jack Cahalan of the department, the Transportation Authority, supported entirely by tolls, maintains all of I-95 north of Caton Avenue on the city line to the Delaware border. A lot of the commuters coming into the city from south and north never pay a toll either way, but the tolls are used to maintain the highways.

Former state Sen. George Della told the panel, “The burden is on you that you need to make the case that you need the increase.”

Swaim-Staley said in an interview that ‘there’s a certain amount of money that needs to be raised,” $70 million to $80 million a year. All the bridges and tunnels are aging, and need constant upkeep, she said.

There are seven more hearings left before the board makes a final decision in August. The largest turnouts are expected Wednesday and Thursday evening in Kent Island and Perryville. Eastern Shore legislators are organizing a protest Wednesday against what they call a war on rural Maryland, and Americans for Prosperity are joining them.

The MdTA board is taking comments about the tolls online until Aug. 1.

—Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com