Cost of using Key Bridge, tunnels to double beginning Saturday

Truckers seek `balance' but say they're `willing to pay our fair share'

November 11, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Dennis Miedusiewski and other truckers who work for Den-El Transfer Co. pay a total of about $1,300 in tolls each month to drive the bridges and tunnels that traverse Baltimore's harbor. They don't relish the thought of that bill doubling as of Saturday.

"Every move we make involves a harbor crossing," said Miedusiewski, whose company owns three trucks. "Our industry is on tight margins, and price increases from our customers are hard to come by."

On Saturday, tolls will double at the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge, the first increases for those crossings since 1985. One change that wasn't available in 1985: Truckers who use E-ZPass Maryland, the wireless automated pay system, will get a discount.

Tolls for motorists registered with the state's commuter discount program won't increase, but drivers who use the bridges and tunnels only occasionally will pay more.

Also going into effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday will be higher tolls on the John F. Kennedy Highway, the 50-mile portion of Interstate 95 between Baltimore and the Delaware line, and at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which carries U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River between Harford and Cecil counties.

"The problem is aging facilities and increasing motorist demand on these facilities," requiring more upkeep, said Bryon Johnston, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which approved the toll increases.

At the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge, motorists in cars will pay $2 instead of $1, except for the registered commuters. The typical five-axle tractor-trailer will pay $8 instead of $4, although fees vary depending on the number of axles and the size of the truck.

Tolls on the Kennedy Highway and at the Hatem bridge will rise from $4 to $5 for cars and from $16 to $20 for typical tractor-trailers.

When tolls at the two tunnels and the Key Bridge last increased 18 years ago, they went from 75 cents to $1 in each direction. Tolls on the Kennedy Highway and at the Hatem bridge last rose in 2001, when basic tolls were doubled from $2 to $4.

Truckers will be offered discounts of 15 percent to 33 percent a month, depending on how much they pay in tolls, but many in the industry aren't pleased. The toll increase will be the second on some Maryland crossings since 2001.

Truckers, who make up less than a tenth of the drivers who pass through state toll plazas, contribute close to a third of the money collected, according to state statistics.

Maryland officials say that even with the increases, the state's fees are less than or comparable to those of other major East Coast toll facilities. A tractor-trailer that pays $8 to pass through the Fort McHenry Tunnel pays $44 to use New York's Verrazano Narrows Bridge, $7.50 for the Queens Midtown Tunnel or $7.50 for Boston's Ted Williams Tunnel.

Truckers pay about 19 cents a mile to travel Maryland's Kennedy Highway, compared with 7.5 cents a mile on New Hampshire's Spaulding Turnpike or 55.5 cents a mile on Virginia's Pocahontas Parkway, state officials say.

Nearly all of the Transportation Authority's budget comes from tolls, which generated $198 million in fiscal 2003.

The authority agreed to discounts for truckers who sign up in Maryland for E-ZPass, the electronic toll-collection system that seven Northeastern states use and that replaced the M-Tag system in Maryland. The authority also agreed to lower the minimum account that truckers need to maintain as a reserve for E-ZPass. Truckers can receive a rebate of up to 33 percent if they spend more than $5,000 a month on tolls.

Walter Thompson, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, which lobbied successfully for a better deal for the truckers, said most area companies are small and don't spend enough on tolls to get the top discount. Thompson, whose group represents 1,035 companies, said many in his industry, more accustomed to dealing in cash, aren't likely to join the E-ZPass system required for discounts. The state has 13,000 commercial E-ZPass accounts and 170,000 car accounts.

Even with the discounts, the impact on trucking companies will be significant.

A truck that pays $1,000 a month in tolls at the Fort McHenry Tunnel will pay $2,000 starting Saturday. Currently, the company might receive a 5 percent discount for frequent trips, which would reduce the tolls to $950. The coming E-ZPass discount is larger, perhaps 20 percent for that same trucker, but the new toll bill would be $1,600 a month, a 68 percent increase.

The association said the Maryland trucking industry pays $452 million in state and federal taxes and fees a year.

"There's no question that we are very supportive and think Maryland has one of the finest transportation systems in the country, and we're willing to pay our fair share because we're the beneficiary, but we think there has to be balance," Thompson said. "I don't think there is anything more anyone is willing to do for us."

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