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Chesapeake Bay Bridge tolls to remain cashless

Maryland is transitioning to electronic tolling at the Chesapeake Bay crossing next week.

Construction on the Bay Bridge resulted in chronic traffic and lane closures, like this traffic jam in Annapolis, on Oct. 10, 2019. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge is officially going cashless.

Starting Tuesday, all tolls at the bridge will be collected electronically, the Maryland Transportation Authority said.

The change may not be obvious to drivers who have crossed the bridge in recent weeks. In mid-March the authority eliminated the cash option, on a temporary basis, at the Bay Bridge and all tolling facilities in the state to eliminate interaction between drivers and toll collectors and to promote social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials said the cash tolls will not reopen at the Chesapeake Bay crossing after the covid-19 emergency is lifted.

The transition to cashless at the Bay Bridge was planned to happen this summer. But state transportation officials said the bridge’s new, full-time all-electronic toll system is ready to roll ahead of schedule. Officials are urging travelers to get a toll transponder.

“Now is the time for cash customers to sign-up for E-ZPass Maryland,” said Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Director James F. Ports Jr.

E-ZPass Maryland holders pay a discounted toll at most state toll facilities. At the Bay Bridge, the E-ZPass rate for a two-axle vehicle is $2.50. The cash toll is $4, and the video toll rate is $6. The E-ZPass transponder is free for Maryland drivers and there is no fee to create or maintain an account.

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The elimination of toll booths at the bridge, which provide a direct connection between the Washington region and Maryland’s Eastern Shore, marks another milestone in Maryland’s vision to go completely electronic throughout its toll system.

That transition to a statewide cashless system began last fall when the MDTA switched to electronic tolling at the Francis Scott Key Bridge (Interstate 695) in Baltimore and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge (Route 40) in Harford and Cecil counties.

The state’s two newest toll roads, the Intercounty Connector and 95 Express Lanes, have had electronic payment systems since they began operations. The MDTA, which manages the state’s eight toll roads and bridges, said it plans to have an all-electronic toll system at all of its locations, but the conversion is expected to take years.

The Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland, which is being replaced, will go cashless just before the new bridge opens in 2023, officials said. And the MDTA has not provided a timeline for converting the Fort McHenry Tunnel, Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and JFK Highway (I-95) to all-electronic tolling.

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State transportation officials say the all-electronic tolling system will help decrease congestion and reduce car emissions. By spending less time idling and stopping to pay a toll, Marylanders will save $1 million and 42,000 hours in fuel and time savings, according to the state.

The conversion to cashless at the Bay Bridge, north of Annapolis, was expected to be completed this summer. A new overhead gantry is up on the eastbound lanes of U.S. 50 between the bridge and Md. 8, and software and testing of the system is underway, officials said.

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Work crews were able to accelerate the construction in the past couple of months when traffic has been lighter at the bridge in part because of the state’s stay-at-home order. But officials say drivers should remain vigilant of workers in the Bay Bridge toll plaza area in coming weeks. Work will continue for removal of all toll booths and the road’s reconstruction.

Travelers should also expect traffic backups in the area, especially after the covid-19 state of emergency is lifted and normal traffic volumes return, officials said.

During the emergency, vehicles without an E-ZPass have been charged the cash rate of $4 via mail. The MDTA said it will continue to charge all cars without an E-ZPass the cash rate for the remaining of the covid-19 state of emergency. Normal rates will go into effect 30 days after the emergency is lifted, officials said, meaning drivers without E-ZPass will be charged the video toll rate of $6.

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Maryland’s transition to cashless at the Bay Bridge affects about 40,000 vehicles that cross the bridge daily. About 74 percent of Bay Bridge drivers already use the E-ZPass electronic payment system, officials said.