The secret to beating that pesky toll on I-95

July 29, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I KNOW something you don't know. Or, rather, I know something a lot of people in Harford County and Cecil County know, but apparently few people from anywhere else know, and it's costing them money. And, doggone it, I'm going to do something about it right now!

I'm going to blow the lid off one of Maryland's better-kept secrets.

Stand back! Don't try and stop me.

I know how to save motorists attempting to travel from Maryland to Delaware a few times each year $5 on the trip. You don't have to pay the Maryland toll on Interstate 95 near Perryville. You can avoid it. You really can. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

You just need to be willing to change, my friends.

You must shake your addiction to E-ZPass for a few minutes.

You must get off Interstate 95 and stick a decal with a bar code on your car window.

Here's what you do:

Depart the interstate at Havre de Grace ("Last Exit Before Toll") and scoot over to U.S. 40 via Route 155. Take Route 40 east to the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River.

The Hatem presents a two-lane passage with toll booths.

One of the lanes is marked for vehicles with AVI (Automatic Vehicle Identification) decals.

Even if you don't have a decal, go in that lane and do what I did last Saturday -- pull up to the tollbooth and thus address the pleasant state employee inside:

"Madam, is it true that if I pay $5 for a decal today, I can drive across this bridge for the rest of the year for free?"

And then she will likely say to you what she said to me: "That's right. I don't know why more people don't buy them."

And for five bucks, you get the decal for your car window and passage over the bridge.

You then drive a bit to Route 222, make a left and enter Interstate 95 north near the outlet stores at Perryville. If you do this each time you drive north--getting off at Havre de Grace and crossing the river by the Hatem bridge -- you'll avoid the interstate toll and save five bucks.

It took me nine minutes -- and that included purchase of the decal and friendly chit-chat -- to make the detour on a summer Saturday afternoon, and only seven minutes the second time, on a summer Sunday morning. I had to discipline myself to avoid roadside attractions -- such as the outlet mall at Perryville -- but I saved five bucks while adding only seven minutes to the trip.

Each of you will have to decide if it's worth it. I think it is.

If you're making a long trip -- to Philly or Jersey or New York or New England -- a couple of times each year, what's a few minutes to save five bucks?

If you're driving to Delaware for the slots, the detour gives you 20 extra quarters to play.

If you're an outlet shopper and want to hit the Jos. A. Bank store at Perryville but don't want to pay the $5 toll to get there each time, the decal and detour is the way to go.

People in Harford and Cecil counties have known about this for years. There are Hatem Bridge decals all over the northeastern stretch of the state. Somehow, news of this deal -- five bucks for a whole year of passage across the Susquehanna -- has not reached the rest of the state. And there's a reason for that: It's not exactly something the Maryland Transportation Authority goes out of its way to publicize.

The state likes collecting as much money as possible from the Interstate 95 toll.

Five bucks a pop from every tourist and snowbird using the nation's busiest highway corridor!

Ka-ching!

But come on. A deal's a deal, and my fellow Marylanders have a right to know about this -- even if I'm something like two decades late with the news about the decals.

(Forgive me for not getting to this sooner, but the Interstate 95 toll has only been five attention-grabbing bucks since last year, and I'm still feeling the sticker shock. Plus, last weekend, I faced the prospect of having to make a Susquehanna crossing three times, and if not for the generous advice of a Harford County acquaintance I might never have known about the Hatem decal deal and I would have paid at least $15 for passage on 95. )

The locals might hate me for telling about this. Same with state transportation officials.

Others not heretofore hip to the Hatem deal might appreciate this modest expose.

Still others will burp over breakfast and keep paying the $5 with E-ZPass, no matter what.

But I feel better today. I have empowered my fellow citizens to make a change in their lives -- to triumph over the system, to circumvent the state's toll collector by taking advantage of the state's own good deal a few miles away. Knowledge is power. Knowledge will save each of you five bucks every trip after the first. Now, about my cut ...

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