Users of Maryland toll facilities face what could be the most dramatic across-the-board increases in the state's history under a plan being developed by the Maryland Transportation Authority.
The proposed tolls are part of a four-year package of $210 million in increases that would put some of the fattest sacred cows in Maryland's transportation system on the chopping block — increasing Bay Bridge tolls, which have remained frozen since 1975, to $5 this year and $8 in 2013, and commuter rates that haven't been touched in 22 years.
The magnitude of the proposed increases comes as no surprise to political insiders and people who closely track Maryland's transportation system, but their scale is likely to be a rude jolt to state residents who would have to dig deeper into their pockets to use the Baltimore Harbor crossings, the Bay Bridge, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and other toll facilities.
The numbers were outlined by the professional staff of the authority at a meeting Thursday of its Finance Committee. The proposals are not binding, but they represent the first specific ideas put on the table for this year and the next round of increases in 2013. The proposal will now go to the full board, which plans to take three weeks to consider it before meeting in early June.
Under the proposal outlined for the Finance Committee of the authority's board, the increases would come in two phases: one on Oct. 1 of this year and the other on July 1, 2013.
Occasional users of the harbor crossings — the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge — now pay $2 each way. Under the plan outlined by the authority staff, they would pay $3 in October and $4 in mid-2013.
Commuters using those crossings, whose rates have been frozen since 1989, now enjoy a discount that lets them use the facilities for 80 cents a day for a round trip. Under the plan the board is expected to consider in June, that toll would rise to $1.80 for a round trip this year, followed by a jump to $2.80 in two years.
Unlike the past several occasions on which the authority has raised tolls, the Bay Bridge would not be spared this time. The current toll, $2.50 on eastbound trips only, is less than the $2.80 charged for a round trip when the first span of the bridge opened in 1952. Under the plan released Thursday, the toll would jump to $5 this year and $8 in 2013. Commuter rates would increase to $1.50 in the first phase and $2.80 in the second.
On the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, the portion of Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore, the toll would rise from $5 to $6 later this year and to $8 in 2013. Commuters on the highway, where drivers pay northbound tolls only, would see an increase from 80 cents a trip to $1.80 next year and $2.80 in two years.
Users of the Hatem Bridge on U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River would pay the same basic cash rate as motorists on the parallel Kennedy Highway. But commuters on the Hatem Bridge face the likely abolition of the current decal system that lets them cross for a full year at a flat $10 rate. Those users would have to use E-ZPass to get a discounted rate, which would go up to $36 a year plus a $1.50-a-month E-ZPass fee.
The final plan could include a sweetener for E-ZPass users. Board members directed the staff to provide them a cost estimate for giving pass users a 10 percent break on tolls — an incentive to switch to a system that saves on collection costs.
In their size and breadth, the increases would be the most sweeping since the state opened its first modern toll facilities in 1940.
Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, who chairs the board, said toll increases are unavoidable because of the need to pay bondholders for existing debts and the growing maintenance demands of aging bridges, tunnels and roads.
"They are at an age where they need major rehabilitation, and we need to pay for that rehabilitation," Swaim-Staley said.
But the state Senate's leading critic of the authority denounced the proposed increases as "outrageous" at a time when Marylanders are trying to cope with near-record gas prices.
"It just shows how out of touch the O'Malley administration is with the average working family," said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from the upper Eastern Shore. "Do you think the average family income in Maryland has gone up 300 percent?"
A leading expert on toll facilities said the proposed increases are steep because they are making up for years in which the state's tolls lagged behind national trends. Peter Samuel, editor of Frederick-based Toll Road News, said the package would take Maryland tolls to levels consistent with national trends. He pointed out that Maryland has gone since 2003 without increasing its base-rate tolls for passenger vehicles.
"I think it's been a long time coming. I don't think it's necessarily excessive," he said. "I personally think they should have bitten the bullet two, three, four years ago."