State Officials Mulling Changes To Toll Increases

BERLIN — In response to the public backlash on the proposed doubling and even tripling of the toll rates on many bridges and highways including the Bay Bridge, Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) officials this week appear to be backing off some of the more stringent elements of the plan or at least stalling their implementation to allow for further study.

The MDTA board met last week to begin wading through a backlog of negative public comments about the proposed toll hikes in Maryland including the eventual tripling of the toll on the Bay Bridge for the current $2.50 to $8 by July 2013. The board was scheduled to meet again yesterday after the 60-day public comment period on the proposed toll hikes concluded on Monday.

The MDTA held a series of 10 public hearings around the state this summer, including a final hearing at Stephen Decatur Middle in Berlin on July 14 attended by hundreds of local residents concerned about the proposed hikes. At the Berlin hearing, the consistent message was the proposal was too much, too fast and it appears the board is now reconsidering certain elements.

“The board members began discussions on the public comments at their monthly meeting last Thursday,” said MDTA Deputy Director of Communications Kelly Melhem this week. “They will re-examine elements of the proposal over the next several weeks and use the public’s feedback to help shape a final plan for approval later this summer.”

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 and commuters.

According to MDTA officials, it has been decades 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’s 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.

Melhem said this week at a minimum, the roughly 4,000 public comments received will force the board to move back the start date on the initial phase of the proposed changes.

“As a result of these ongoing discussions, phase-one implementation of the toll increases will no longer be Oct. 1 as proposed, but is still expected to take place before the end of the year,” she said. “The MDTA board members have been reviewing the comments and will be making adjustments over the next several weeks to the tolling plan proposed on June 2.”

Based on the public feedback, the MDTA is re-examining and discussing potential changes to a variety of segments of the plan, including the tripling of the Bay Bridge toll proposed for July 1, 2013. Other elements of the plan under further scrutiny include the commuter toll rates, the impact on drivers of recreational vehicles with trailers and the impact on trucking companies, among others.

Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B) said this week he was pleased the MDTA board appears to be taking the public comments to heart as they move forward with the approval process.

“I’m glad they’re revisiting some of these issues based on the level of outrage they heard from the citizens,” he said. “It looks like they’re being responsive, but when we see the final product, we’ll know if they were really listening or not.”

McDermott said at a minimum, the doubling of the Bay Bridge toll appears to be moved back to a later date and praised the citizens for rallying against the proposed changes.

“I think it’s a testimony to the people of Maryland, particularly the people of the Eastern Shore,” he said. “It looks like they’re probably backing off that Oct. 1 implementation date to at least November.”

He said the official responses MDTA received during the comment period reflect only a small percentage of those who actually turned out for the public hearings.

“That figure represents the individuals who actually spoke and provided testimony and doesn’t include all of the citizens who showed up at these hearings just to show their support,” he said. “The number is probably triple what they’re portraying.”

McDermott, one of the most outspoken opponents during the public hearing in Berlin, continued his disapproval this week.

“I think it’s unreasonable to ask Marylanders to pay arbitrarily a fee way beyond what it costs to maintain that bridge,” he said. “They’re raising the tolls across the state to make them more uniform, but I think they should set the rates for each facility, or bridge or road on a case-by-case basis.”