The board of the Maryland Transportation Authority voted unanimously yesterday to double tolls at the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and raise tolls on three other state roads to help pay for a major expansion of Interstate 95.
If the plan wins final approval next month, as expected, tolls would increase from $1 to $2 each way at the tunnels and the Key Bridge.
The fees would go from $4 to $5 on I-95 north of Baltimore in Cecil County and at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which carries U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River.
The increases would take effect Nov. 15. They would be the first at the tunnels and Key Bridge since 1985, while tolls on I-95 and the Hatem Bridge last went up in 2001.
Officials said the increases are needed to pay for the I-95 work, as well as resurfacing the Key Bridge and improving the tunnels, among other projects.
"We had a choice," said state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan. "We could either let the facilities decay and let congestion overtake us or we could be proactive and maintain our facilities and begin to take on the congestion."
The state plans to add four lanes to I-95 between the Baltimore City line and White Marsh in the next six years.
The toll increase would raise $100 million a year for highway improvements. Officials noted that 56 percent of the money would come from out-of-state drivers.
"They use our highways and deserve the opportunity to help us fund our highways, bridges and tunnels," Flanagan said.
The toll increases would not affect commuter discount programs.
Those who use the programs would continue to pay 40 cents at the tunnels and Key Bridge and 80 cents on I-95 and at the Hatem Bridge. Officials said there are no plans to increase those fees.
The increases come as the transportation authority, which runs the state's toll roads and bridges, substantially ramps up its construction plans to fight congestion.
The agency, which has averaged about $58 million a year in capital projects recently, plans to increase that to $269 million by 2007.
While much of the money would be spent on preservation, such as keeping up the 15 bridges that are part of I-95 in Baltimore, almost half would go to the I-95 expansion project from the city line to White Marsh Boulevard. The highway would increase from eight lanes to 12, with construction beginning in 2006.
"We are at a critical point," said authority Executive Secretary Thomas L. Osborne. "We must bring our revenues into balance with our needs and expansion projects."
In voting to raise tolls, board members noted that other Eastern states still charge drivers much more money per mile than Maryland. Delaware, for instance, charges 19 cents per mile on its brief portion of I-95, compared with 4 cents per mile in Maryland.
One board member suggested yesterday a study of increasing the Bay Bridge toll, which is $2.50 roundtrip. But Flanagan said that it is too early for such a discussion, especially in light of the recent lane closures for bridge work that have caused backups.
"This is a very complex problem we're facing on the Bay Bridge, and I think it's better to go a little slower," Flanagan said.
The board will take a final vote on increasing tolls at the tunnels, Key Bridge, I-95 and Hatem Bridge on Oct. 21.
Citizens can e-mail comments to tollrates@mdtransportation authority.com until Oct. 20.