Chamber Poll Finds Toll Increases Too Much, Too Fast

OCEAN CITY =- A proposal to double the tolls on the William Preston Lane Memorial Bridge, or Chesapeake Bay Bridge complex, this year and triple the rates by 2013 moved closer to becoming a reality last week when Maryland Transportation Authority board members endorsed the hike, prompting local officials to gauge public opinion on the plan.

Faced with significant costs for the rehabilitation of aging infrastructure, along with the construction of additional highway capacity in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, the chairman and eight members of the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) last week formally proposed a plan to increase rates at toll facilities across the state including the Bay Bridge.

According to the proposal, the toll at the Bay Bridge would double from the current $2.50 for a one-way passage to $5 as soon as this fall, with another increase to $8 by 2013, effectively doubling, then tripling the rate to cross the major conduit to the Eastern Shore and the resort area. Discounts would be available for EZ-Pass customers.

According to MDTA officials, it has been years, even decades in some cases, since the rates were raised at most toll facilities in Maryland. For example, the Bay Bridge toll was last increased in 1983 and is actually lower now than it was when the original span first opened.

The toll increases are expected to general $77 million in additional revenue in the first year alone for the MDTA, a self-supporting state agency that finances, owns, operates and maintains Maryland eight toll facilities. MDTA officials this week pointed out the increased cost of maintaining the structures, including an estimated $225 million for the Bay Bridge alone, as they attempted to justify the increase.

“The MDTA board has scaled back projects and reduced expenses to delay an increase in tolls as long as possible,” said MDTA senior board member Louise Hoblitzell. “However, the time has come when additional revenue is required to keep pace with the cost of constructing and maintaining our facilities. There is never a good time to increase tolls, but we have a fiscal responsibility, let alone a legal obligation, to pay our bills.”

As news that the MDTA had formally endorsed the toll hike plan got out, the resort community almost immediately began weighing in on the proposal’s potential impact on Ocean City. This week, the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce solicited comments from business owners, residents and visitors as it prepares to formulate its own position.

Chamber Executive Director Melanie Pursel said most of the comments and emails received this week were strongly opposed to the toll increase, although a handful actually supported the hike. More than a few were passionately opposed to the increase.

“The general consensus seems to be, people understand that there needs to be an increase, but I think people are concerned with the percentage of increase in such a short time,” she said. “An increase is not that big of a deal, but we’re talking about a 300-percent increase by 2013.”

Some of the responses pointed out the proposed toll hike is being viewed as just another tax or fee heaped on vacationers, residents and business owners, including soaring gas prices, a new tax on alcohol in Maryland that goes into effect in July, and other fees and taxes that have been increased in an otherwise difficult economy. One responder even called the toll increase “another nail in the coffin for Ocean City.”

Pursel said she didn’t think the proposed toll hike would have an enormous impact on those planning an extended vacation in Ocean City, but it could impact impromptu trips.

“I think this could have an impact on day tripping,” she said. “People will think twice about shelling out the $5, and later $8, to come across the bridge from Annapolis, Washington and Baltimore, especially if they have to hit another toll along the way somewhere. People are hurting out there and they’re tightening their belts.”

Pursel said another big concern for many responders is that the revenue collected by the toll increase goes to repairing and rehabilitating the highways and bridges as intended.

“They want to make sure the money is going where it’s supposed to be going,” she said. “Many of the responders commented they thought the revenue would be thrown into the general fund for use for some other programs or projects. I think most people could live with the increase if they knew the Bay Bridge was going to be open and free and clear all the time.”

Beyond the obvious impact on tourist and commuter traffic coming and going across the Bay Bridge is a concern about possible impact on goods and services on the Eastern Shore and the Ocean City area.

“I really feel there could be a potential impact on tourism, but another concern is the possible impact on commerce,” she said. “All of those big rigs coming across that bridge carrying all manner of goods for Ocean City and the Eastern Shore are going to be impacted and there has to be some trickle down from that eventually.”

The public comment period on the proposed toll hikes is open for the next 60 days and MDTA has scheduled a series of public hearings. The closest public hearing will be held Wednesday, June 15, at Kent County High School in Stevensville from 5:30 to 8 p.m. and already a local contingent is preparing to make their concerns known.