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Maryland cuts tolls on Bay Bridge, ICC and other roadways

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced that motorists will pay less to drive on Maryland bridges and roadways starting July 1. (Video: YouTube/GovHogan)

Starting July 1, motorists will pay less to drive on Maryland toll bridges and roadways.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) made the surprise announcement Thursday during a hastily called news conference at the foot of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where he proudly announced that the toll would drop $2. The reductions, he said, mark the first time in 50 years that the state’s tolls have been rolled back.

“Our concern is about the money taken out of the pockets of taxpayers,” Hogan said. “It’s what we ran on. It’s what we promised to do. We’re delivering on what we said we would.”

In all, the changes will save those who use the roadways about $54 million a year, he said.

Hogan also took a swipe at the General Assembly for not providing all the tax relief he wanted during the recent 90-day legislative session. He said reducing tolls was something he could do without approval from the Democratic-controlled legislature, which he clashed with over the state budget.

Within minutes of the announcement, the Twitterverse responded.

“Never thought I’d see the day taxes in Maryland would go down. Thank you,” tweeted one person. Added another: “@Larry Hogan Thanks for lowering toll costs, will be clutch when heading to Ocean City this summer.”

The cuts mean the cash toll for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge will drop to $4 round-trip from $6. The commuter rate will drop to $1.40 from $2.10. And the E-ZPass discounted toll will be $2.50 round-trip, down from $5.40.

The toll decrease also includes the Intercounty Connector (ICC), an 18.8-mile highway between Interstate 270 in Gaithersburg in Montgomery County and U.S. Route 1 in Laurel in Prince George’s. Low traffic on the four-year-old highway has prompted calls for lower tolls to encourage usage, but Maryland Transportation Authority officials have said they can’t lower the tolls without losing revenue needed to pay off the road’s construction debt.

With a price tag of $2.5 billion, the ICC is the most expensive highway ever built in Maryland.

Hogan’s action cuts tolls on the ICC by 3 cents per mile during all travel periods.

Translated: A peak-period trip from I-270/I-370 to U.S. 1 will drop to $3.86 from $4.40 for drivers with an E-ZPass, and a peak-period trip on I-95 (Express Toll Lane) will drop to $1.54 from $1.75 with an E-ZPass. The rates cited are for passenger vehicles.

Hogan also is eliminating the $1.50 monthly maintenance fee Maryland E-ZPass users pay if they don't meet a certain usage threshold. Virginia did away with its 50-cent monthly fee in September.

Virginia officials hope scraping monthly E-ZPass fee will boost HOT lane usage

While motorists may cheer the reductions, some Maryland lawmakers warned that the loss of revenue could hamper the state’s ability to deal with its aging roads and bridges, such as the 75-year-old Nice Bridge in southern Maryland, while also building additional bridges to accommodate traffic now clogging such two-lane crossings.

The Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) relies on toll revenue to pay off bonds issued to finance expensive highway and bridge rehabilitation projects, as well as new construction.

“It’s mortgaging the future,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). “He’s pushing off the costs to future generations of governors and legislators because this money is needed now.

“We need money to build these bridges,” Miller said. “It needs to come from the tolls that the governor is cutting. You’re going to have to pay for these bridges at some point. It smacks of someone campaigning and pleasing the crowd rather than sound government.”

Hogan pushed back at those who said the move was politically motivated and would ultimately result in toll hikes.

“Quite frankly I don’t care what the legislators or analysts think,” Hogan said. “It sounds like a lot of whining by people who want to continue to protect the status quo and increase taxes and increase fees and tolls, and we just have a difference of opinion.”

Hogan administration officials said the tolls can be lowered without harming the state’s financial picture because lost revenue can be made up through cost savings within the MdTA.

“All of our cash balances will all be maintained with this reduction,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. “We will still be in a very good financial position with these cuts. It is a fair action for both the authority and the public.”

Rahn said state officials went through the budget “with a fine-tooth comb, looking for areas that we could reduce and still maintain a high-quality system.”

He said the authority looked at staffing levels and will reduce some positions through vacancies and attrition. In all, it found the $54 million in savings, Rahn said.

Hogan added that lower tolls might increase usage of the toll roads and said he was less concerned about the effect on state coffers than on Maryland drivers.

Still, higher volume might not be enough to make up the difference. A 2013 study by a consultant for the MdTA found that lowering the ICC tolls would increase traffic but not enough to offset the overall toll revenue losses.

Former Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews, who has long advocated cutting ICC tolls by as much as half, called Hogan’s action “a good first step” but wasn’t convinced it would increase the number of people using the highway.

“It probably helps some, but I’m not sure it’s enough to change behavior,” Andrews said. “We need a more dramatic reduction.”

Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.