In 2005, foes of the Intercounty Connector raised a little hell about the Ehrlich administration's plans to build the long-delayed highway as a toll road - estimating that a daily end-to-end commuter might face up to $1,500 a year in tolls.
"If you're earning $40,000 a year and taking home $30,000 a year, that's 5 percent of your take-home pay," Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews said at the time.
The public yawned. Proponents accused opponents of using scare tactics. The $2.6 billion project went ahead.
Last week, after a prolonged game of hide-and-seek, the Maryland Transportation Authority finally released the first hard numbers outlining what it will cost for motorists to use the ICC. It turns out $1,500 wasn't such a bad deal after all.
The authority is proposing to set the per-mile toll during peak drive times at 25 cents to 35 cents a mile. If those rates hold until the full 18.8 miles of the ICC open in late 2011 or early 2012, an everyday, end-to-end driver of the 17.5 miles that are tolled would have to cough up roughly $2,100-$2,900 a year to use the highway.
I'll leave it to others to complain that this is a burdensome tax (it's not) or that it's unfair to whatever oppressed group (using it is optional). And let's not rehash the debate about whether the ICC should have been built. It's a done deal. Get a grip.
Those who hope to cast these tolls in partisan terms could run up against an inconvenience called reality. The person who cooked up the scheme to make the ICC a toll road was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He had the full support of the Democratic General Assembly leaders and his fellow Republicans. Nobody wanted to pay for the road up front with taxes. Now it's up to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who essentially adopted Ehrlich's ICC policy, to deliver the bill.
The high tolls for peak times should come as no surprise. What is a bit startling about the plan is how far the state has backed off its ballyhooed plans for "dynamic" pricing according to levels of congestion. Out the door are algorithms and high-tech sensors. In the plan is a simple, quite conventional two-tiered pricing structure. You're either peak or off-peak, and the savings for traveling at off-peak hours isn't that much. At a minimum, off-peak users would pay 20 cents a mile, or $3.50 end to end each way.
Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Road News, said he suspects there just won't be enough congestion on the ICC during its early years to justify congestion pricing. He doubts there will be significant clogging until about 2020.
Samuel noted that the state didn't just pull these numbers out of thin air. The authority hired a well-respected consultant, Wilbur Smith Associates, to make revenue projections and crunch numbers. The figures the state is proposing fall in line with the toll rates that the consultant estimated would maximize revenue.
The notion of maximizing government revenue will raise some hackles, but consider this: The bond holders who provide the dough to build the toll road will have to be repaid somehow. If they aren't paid out of ICC revenues, they'll have to be paid out of other money streams - including tolls collected at Baltimore-area bridges and tunnels. That would be far more objectionable than making ICC users pay their own way.
Ronald Freeland, executive secretary of the transportation authority, said the state has already run these numbers by the bond rating agencies and received their blessing. That probably makes the basic framework of the toll plan a done deal. The state has set public hearings Oct. 28 and Oct. 29. But in matters involving tolling, the will of the people counts far less than the dictates of the bond market.
My first reaction was that these hearings would be an empty exercise, but now I'm not so sure. It would be a good thing if people showed up and picked apart the details.
I'm curious about why regular commuters on the ICC are not being offered some kind of break - as users of the Bay Bridge and harbor crossings are. I wonder why the authority would recommend a two-tier system under which the toll would be the same at 2:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. Wouldn't it make sense to have three or four tiers?
One thing about the authority's tolling plans is more bothersome than the rates. All along, this was billed as a project of statewide significance that would bring Baltimore and the Interstate 270 corridor together. But now that they're talking tolls, the authority is holding only two hearings - one in Prince George's County and one in Montgomery County - as if it were a rinky-dink local project.
Freeland said the authority decided to hold hearings in the two counties that are most affected. But is failing to hold a hearing in Baltimore a sign of disrespect? Feel free to weigh in at firstname.lastname@example.org.