Getting There: Want to know why tolls are going up?

Soaring debts, aging system are culprits, analysts say

March 20, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Plain talk is to be valued wherever you find it — even in a wonky state government document that explains why drivers will have to pay higher tolls in 2012.

And again in 2014. And one more time in 2016.

The document, which makes for surprisingly lively reading, comes from the anonymous but perceptive analysts for the Department of Legislative Services. It dissects the finances of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs Maryland toll bridges, tunnels and toll roads.

True to the spirit of the legislative services department, which exists to provide unbiased information to the General Assembly, it pulls no punches in outlining the state of the authority, how it got to where it is today and where it's going in the future.

Its message is simple: Maryland tolls are cheap, but they won't be for much longer. And that's not because some evil politicians are conspiring to soak you. It's because the bills are coming due and have to be paid.

The analysts warn that users of MdTA facilities face a "culture change."

"Over the past several decades, low toll rates have made Maryland drivers accustomed to paying minimal toll rates. Increased debt service and the demands of an aging system will necessitate periodic toll increases over the next several years," the report says. "Although the MDTA Board has independent toll-setting authority, it is not immune to public and political pressure to limit toll increases. The MDTA Board has a fiduciary responsibility to continue to raise revenues as necessary despite public or political opposition."

That's right. Neither you nor your legislator gets a vote on the decision. Yes, there will be hearings on any proposed increase, but despite the inevitable shouting, they will be more about the details than the overall size of the revenue increase. That's because the board members, who are appointed by the governor, are charged with keeping the facilities maintained and giving the bondholders peace of mind — not with keeping voters happy. (They do, however, try to keep the governor happy.)

Some might contest the description of Maryland toll rates as "minimal," but the analysts marshal facts to prove their case that the state has "some of the lowest toll rates on the Eastern Seaboard."

The Bay Bridge, they note, is cheaper to cross round-trip now at $2.50 than it was when it opened in 1952. You get to ride 48 miles in each direction on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway for $5, while $10.50 will get you 14 miles on the Dulles Greenway in Virginia. Commuter rates on the Baltimore harbor crossings have been frozen since 1975.

Even with its relatively low tolls, the analysts say, the authority remained a "cash-rich" agency for many decades.

So what changed? The $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector, for one. And the roughly $1 billion widening of Interstate 95 with express toll lanes to relieve congestion northeast of Baltimore.

Largely because of those projects, the authority has floated billions of dollars in loans that "will result in significantly higher debt service payments over the next 30 years," the analysts say. Debt service that was $25 million in 2007 will grow to $165 million in 2020.

On top of that there's the growing cost of maintaining a system that was largely built in the 1930s through the 1980s. After the ICC and express toll lane projects, the biggest-ticket capital item on the authority's current to-do list is more than $100 million to shore up the shaky underwater foundations of its two Susquehanna River bridges. Not exactly fat waiting to be trimmed.

But can't the agency cut back somewhere else? Not easily, according to the analysts.

There was a time, they said, when the authority was — in my words — fat, dumb and happy. "During the 1990s and early 2000s, there was typically double-digit percentage growth in the operating budget each year," the report says.

Analysts and the bond-rating agencies worried over its ability to pay its debts.

But now, the analysts say, "these concerns have largely been tempered by MDTA's ability to constrain budget growth." They gave primary credit to Executive Secretary Ronald L. Freeman, who led the agency from 2007 to 2010.

There's other good news in the report. According to the analysts, the authority won't need nearly as large an increase in fiscal 2012 as they once feared it would. Spending discipline has been part of the reason; the recession also played a part.

"MDTA has also benefited tremendously from a low interest rate environment," the analysis says. "MDTA could not have picked a better time to issue such large amounts of debt."

Now, the analysts say, the agency should be able to get by with a 2012 increase of 27 percent.

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