BERLIN — A lively crowd sent a unanimous message to the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) last Thursday — steep increases to the Bay Bridge toll would not be popular.
“We can no longer remain complacent on the Eastern Shore,” asserted Gail Butkus.
Butkus was one of many to speak at a public hearing on toll increases held last Thursday at Stephen Decatur Middle School. The hearing was the last in a series of 10 staged across Maryland by the MDTA and meant to gauge public opinion on rate increases for all toll facilities in the state.
“All of these fees are making people nervous,” said Delegate Jay Jacobs (R-36). “This is not the time to be spending money.”
Raising the Bay Bridge fee would take place in two phases. The first, effective next October, would double the current $2.50 base rate to $5. The second phase, effective July 2013, would bring it up to $8, a number that MDTA officials revealed they want to be uniform for all toll facilities in the state. Overall, the changes would constitute a 300-percent jump in two years.
“I look at this toll hike like an earthquake,” said Jacobs. “You get hit twice.”
According to Jacobs, the increases wouldn’t just hurt commuters who use the bridge but would trickle down to negatively impact other industries. Specifically, Jacobs forecasted the tourism and agricultural industries as bearing the brunt of higher tolls. Jacobs warned that high tolls would discourage commuters from using Maryland roads and might send drivers north to Delaware.
The board presented several justifications for the hikes, pointing out that it actually cost more, $2.80 plus 25 cents per passenger, to cross the Bay Bridge when it was built in 1952 than it does today. Additionally, the MDTA stressed the fact that none of their facilities are ever “paid for” since they require constant maintenance and repair.
Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) disagreed with many of the board’s points and delivered a passionate argument against the increases that resulted in multiple standing ovations from the audience.
“The Bay Bridge is a cash cow in the state of Maryland,” said McDermott, despite the MDTA stating the opposite. “I don’t see the Bay Bridge as a crisis.”
In his opinion, the toll hikes were unnecessary to maintain the bridge.
“The Bay Bridge stands on its own merit at $2.50,” he said.
McDermott remarked that, while all tolls collected from MDTA facilities went back to those facilities, money collected from the Bay Bridge could be shuffled over to support a different bridge or tunnel in another part of the state.
“They’ve lumped everything together,” he said.
Business owner Alberta Harrison agreed with McDermott.
“The bridge, since its inception, has always made money,” she asserted.
Harrison wondered why the hikes were happening now and why they were so extreme. Harrison echoed Jacobs’ warning that increases could lead to economic trouble.
“There are a lot of businesses who have been pushed to the edge,” she said.
Jacobs pointed out that recent tax increases, like the one on alcohol which went into effect July 1, combined with a toll hike put too much pressure on the Eastern Shore, especially given the weak economy.
“It is a ridiculous hike at one time,” said Laura Mitchell, a member of the Salisbury City Council. “They [MDTA] have not planned ahead.”
Many agreed that it was more the size of the hike and the short period of time in which prices would change that was ruffling feathers.
“If they raised it by 50 cents, we probably wouldn’t even be here tonight,” said McDermott.
“I don’t think it’s popular,” said Mitchell of the jump. “I don’t think it’s wise…We have to do this in bite size pieces.”
Delegate Norm Conway (D-38B) also suggested moderation, but on a different level.
“Five dollars I think most people would consider,” said Conway.
However, the comment drew a negative reaction from the crowd, implying that doubling the current toll would not be well received, at least by those in attendance.
Conway did ask MDTA officials to keep in mind the “tough economic times,” and to reconsider the severity of the increases. He told the board that he wanted the bridge to be in top condition, and he understood there are costs associated with that. However, he asked that MDTA think diligently on the situation.
“You have a responsibility to weigh what those costs are,” he said.
Nick Loffer, a representative of Americans for Prosperity, called the hikes “soft tyranny” and circulated a petition amongst the audience and government officials in attendance asking them not to support any increases. When polled, the vast majority of people at the hearing revealed that they had signed the petition.
“This is the wrong tax at the wrong time,” said Loffer.
Whether the MDTA will allow the negative public feedback to alter the proposed toll hikes won’t be apparent until it makes a final decision later this summer.
However, McDermott was optimistic the rate increase would be lower than currently expected.
“Hopefully they will back off it,” he said.