Tolls will soon double on some Maryland highways as officials approved a statewide increase Thursday to confront deteriorating and congested roads and bridges, and a lack of money to pay for improvements.
The Maryland Transportation Authority, grappling with what has become a national problem, said the toll hikes were necessary to offset declining revenue and to pay off debt. The authority board voted unanimously for the package of increases that will affect every toll facility in the state, from Interstate 95 to the Intercounty Connector, with the first increases taking effect Nov. 1.
“I know it’s a very tough time and this is very hard for the public, but I can’t stress enough that we had no choice but to raise tolls,” Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley said at the board meeting in the authority headquarters near the Port of Baltimore. “Commitments were made, and bills were coming due. . . . This is definitely not something that any of us wanted to do.”
As part of the package, the transportation authority raised cash tolls for cars on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge from $2.50 to $4 and on the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland from $3 to $4. Tolls on both bridges will rise again in July 2013 to $6.
Tolls on some facilities, such as the Bay Bridge, had not increased for passenger vehicles since the 1970s, Maryland officials said.
Like many states, Maryland has already deferred hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transportation projects in recent years and cut back road maintenance because of a lack of money. Lawmakers have repeatedly declined to raise the state gas tax, and Congress is expected to make significant cuts in federal transportation money to states as it struggles to pass new long-term funding legislation.
Revenue at Maryland’s toll facilities has dropped over the past several years as gas prices rose and traffic, particularly commercial trucking, dropped during the recession.
The toll increases will only fund repairs to the eight bridges, tunnels and roads that the authority controls. Maryland still has the larger problem facing many states: finding more money to repair the rest of its aging transportation infrastructure.
Swaim-Staley said the state must pay debt service on bonds issued to pay for repairs to bridges, tunnels and roads now reaching 50 to 70 years old. A study released by a nonprofit transportation research group in February said 44 percent of the state’s roads were in bad condition, and 25 percent of its bridges were deteriorating or obsolete.
The money also will help pay for construction of the $2.56 billion ICC, which is scheduled to be completed to its full 18.8 miles by early next year, and $1 billion worth of express toll lanes on I-95 near Baltimore.
Swaim-Staley said she expects the higher tolls to raise $225 million by 2014.
The Maryland decision followed news from Virginia officials this week that the federal government has granted conditional approval for the commonwealth to implement tolls on Interstate 95 to help pay for improvements to the congested corridor.
Those tolls are a couple of years away for drivers in the southern reaches of Virginia, but Maryland motorists will feel the impact in just over a month, even affecting some users of the ICC.
Drivers who use the ICC without an E-ZPass transponder will pay 150 percent of the base toll, which fluctuates depending on the time of day. The surcharge, which will amount to a minimum of $1 and be charged via a notice in the mail, replaces the current additional $3 flat fee for not having a transponder. Other ICC toll rates remain the same.
Baltimore area passenger vehicles will pay $3 each way for the Interstate 895 Harbor Tunnel and the Interstate 95 Fort McHenry Tunnel starting in November — up from $2 each way — and $4 beginning in July 2013. Tolls on I-95 between Baltimore and the Delaware state line will rise in November from $5 to $6, then to $8 in July 2013.
The toll increase, initially proposed in June, drew vocal opposition in some parts of the state, particularly on the Eastern Shore and in Harford and Cecil counties, where motorists said the higher rates would be too expensive for those who use local bridges several times a day for commuting, business and errands. The authority received more than 3,800 public comments, and some of the 10 public hearings across the state were packed.
Swaim-Staley said the reaction prompted the board to scale back the proposed increases for passenger vehicles on the Bay Bridge, the Nice Bridge and some others. Board members said they also waived the monthly $1.50 account fee for E-ZPass users who have traveled on three or more toll facilities in the previous month and increased the commuter discount rate from 70 percent to 75 percent.
But state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne’s) said the authority had effectively passed a tax increase.
“Shame, shame, shame,” Pipkin told reporters after the vote. “All the governor and the secretary and this board did here today was kill jobs.”
Pipkin said some of his Eastern Shore constituents would pay hundreds more in commuting costs.
“We saw [at public hearings] working-class citizens saying these toll increases would really impact families when the economy is at its worst,” Pipkin said.
Commercial truckers, including many who rely on Baltimore area tunnels to retrieve shipping containers from the port, also will be hit hard, said Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association. A tractor-trailer that now pays $12 each way to use the Fort McHenry Tunnel will pay $18 each way beginning in January and $24 each way as of July 2013.
The additional $12 daily that a truck driver making a round trip from the port will pay in tolls beginning in January will amount to $3,000 annually. That extra cost multiplied by 10 for a small trucking company amounts to almost the annual salary of one driver, Campion said. While consumers will end up paying higher costs long term, he said, trucking companies that can’t renegotiate shipping contracts in a tight economy will have to absorb the costs for now.
Campion said this will be the fourth toll hike in Maryland to affect truckers since 2001, while commuter toll rates have held steady and remained “artificially low” on some bridges and roads for 25 years.
“Our industry has been paying its fair share,” Campion said.