Lower ICC tolls mean nonusers will foot more of bill

GETTING THERE

Montgomery County Council wants users to pay less

November 23, 2009|By Michael Dresser | michael.dresser@baltsun.com

You've got to give credit to the members of the Montgomery County Council. They're sticking up for their constituents over the issue of tolls on the Intercounty Connector. If only other elected officials were doing the same.

The Montgomery Council recently voted to urge the Maryland Transportation Authority to back off its plans to charge ICC tolls at the level that the authority's consultant figures the market will bear. That comes to as much as 35 cents a mile at peak drive times - which would translate into about $6 for a one-way, end-to-end trip when the highway fully opens in 2011-2012.

The council is also asking the authority to phase in a $3 fee for those who use the toll road without an E-ZPass - a billing charge similar to one that's already being collected for mailed notices. On top of that, it wants a subsidized commuter rate that is at odds with the plan to use toll rates to eliminate congestion on the ICC.

These ideas certainly sound good to Montgomery County elected officials because they are nothing more than an added subsidy for use of a road that is already heavily subsidized. The problem, from a Baltimore point of view, is that artificially lower tolls on the ICC mean it will generate less revenue than expected. That means a greater share of the debt service on the authority's bonds will have to be paid out of some other revenue stream.

There aren't a whole lot of other places for the authority to look for that revenue. Maryland now has seven toll facilities. None is anywhere close to Montgomery County. Except for one, the U.S. 301 bridge over the Potomac River, they are all located entirely or partly in the Baltimore region. (The Bay Bridge, the two Susquehanna River bridges, the Francis Scott Key Bridge and the two Baltimore Harbor tunnels.)

So if the authority gives ICC users a break, it's going to have to do so by socking users of those other facilities just a little harder when the next toll increase comes up in 2011-2012.

(There's really no way around it: No matter who is governor, the bond rating agencies are expecting a revenue increase in a certain range. If the authority wimps out about imposing sufficient toll increases to generate that revenue, Maryland risks a credit downgrade. That would cost us all in future borrowing.)

So who are the big users of Maryland's existing toll facilities? Here's a clue: Queen Anne's, Baltimore, Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard counties rank near the top among E-ZPass penetration per 1,000 households - a good proxy for toll payments.

Montgomery is in 12th place. So in a nutshell, the idea of easing the ICC toll burden can be summed up in this phrase: Dundalk pays, Potomac plays.

I can understand the Montgomery council seeking a break for its constituents, who will likely be the most frequent users of the ICC. If they can hornswoggle the authority into sticking the Baltimore region with a disproportionate share of the bill for the ICC - as it did with the last general toll increase in 2003 - they will have earned the praise of a grateful electorate.

What I can't understand is why we aren't hearing an outcry from elected officials from the Baltimore region, the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland warning the authority against shifting ICC costs to the people they represent. Mayor Sheila Dixon's been a bit preoccupied, but where are the voices of our county executives, our council members and legislators?

Hello, anyone awake?

The Ehrlich administration was quite clear on the subject as far back as 2003: The ICC would be built as a toll road, with rates set as high as they needed to be to keep it congestion-free. That was the deal, and the O'Malley administration left it in place.

Now the highly paid consultants have come back and forecast robust demand for capacity on the ICC. They've recommended setting inaugural rates accordingly.

That, not some abstract idea of what's fair, is consistent with the vision for the ICC - whether one likes that vision or not. It's too late to go back on the deal without breaking faith with key stakeholders.

If the Montgomery County Council is correct, and the initial rates are too high, the market will bring them down. If the consultant is correct, the ICC will do a better job of paying for itself.

Users of Baltimore-area toll facilities are already paying a premium on their tolls to create the ICC. Don't hit us with more of the bill because the very people who begged the state to build it are now shocked at the bill.

The authority's board will vote on ICC tolls Dec. 17. If the only voices they hear are from Montgomery, those of us from Baltimore deserve whatever we get.

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