Drivers in Md. to see toll increases starting in October

State officials set timetable for cost increases

March 27, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Transportation Authority expects its planned toll increases to take effect starting in October, officials at the agency say.

The timetable for the increases came into clearer focus last week at a meeting of the toll authority's board, where members conducted a general, consensus-seeking discussion of the parameters of the increases, which are expected to raise a minimum of $70 million in annual revenue.

According to the plan, the board would make a decision on specific proposals in May, then take them to about seven public hearings in June and July. The board is hoping to implement the increases in October.

The increase has long been expected as a result of rising maintenance costs on Maryland's aging toll facilities and the need to keep its ratio of cash to debt at a level that satisfies the bond market.

This year it appears the board will have a lot on the table besides simple adjustments to basic fares. The discussion indicated that the board will consider a variety of innovations, including tolls at existing facilities that vary between peak and off-peak travel times.

There is also a strong inclination on the board to move away from giving change in coins, though most would still change dollar bills. Several members suggested that tolls should be set in even-dollar increments. Others pointed to the costs of counting coins, as well as delays from the inevitable fumbling that occurs.

Members are also planning to look at further incentives to encourage drivers to use E-ZPass. It also appeared that many members want to drop the decal system used to provide discounts to regular users of the U.S. 40 bridge over the Susquehanna River.

Board members are not ruling out increases in commuter rates or Bay Bridge tolls. Both have been essentially frozen for decades.

"I think they want to look at all the options. Nothing's off the table," said Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley, who chairs the board. "We are not going to have the luxury of not looking at all facilities."

One outcome that's unlikely to come about during this round of toll increases is a move to "open-road" tolling, in which all money is collected through electronic means rather than toll booths, at existing facilities. Swaim-Staley said the capital costs of moving to such a system, which has been suggested by some legislators, could be prohibitive.

Board member Richard C. Mike Lewin, a former state secretary of economic development, suggested that the authority might be better off consolidating the expected increase in budget years 2012 and 2014 into a single package. He said the more money the authority takes in up front, the less it will have to raise tolls overall.

Under Maryland law, the board has the decision-making power on toll changes, with no need for action by the General Assembly. The board is required to hold public hearings. Authority spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks said they would be scheduled in locations around the state, including the Eastern Shore.

The authority has just begun collecting tolls on its newest facility, the first leg of the Intercounty Connector toll road in the Washington suburbs. But Swaim-Staley said it will take about 15 to 20 years for it to pay its share of its $2.6 billion cost of construction and begin turning a profit that can help support the other facilities in the system.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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