One fine day seven years ago, somebody told me about the deal on the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River, on Route 40 between Harford and Cecil counties, and I almost couldn't believe it.
At the time, you could pay $5 for a barcode decal, attach it to the rear driver's-side window and drive back and forth across the old bridge all year and pay nothing more in tolls.
One time, five bucks, and all the Suskie crossings you could make — Harford to Cecil, Cecil to Harford. Unbelievable.
"I don't know why more people don't buy them," the pleasant state employee said when I inquired about the deal at the toll booth.
Meanwhile, it cost $5 each time you drove northbound through the toll-plaza up on nearby I-95, just a few miles away.
So, if you didn't mind the inconvenience of getting off I-95 at Havre de Grace ("Last Exit Before Toll") and making the brief detour to U.S. 40 to cross the Hatem Bridge, it was a great deal.
Basking in the afterglow of my minor financial triumph, feeling like a savvy tourist who had discovered a great bargain, and wishing to share with others, I wrote a column about the Hatem decals. I encouraged all motorists in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic corridor to consider buying them.
Reaction was mixed.
Lots of readers expressed appreciation — those who made frequent trips up I-95 to visit grandchildren or to conduct business in New York or New England a few times each year. They said they didn't mind the detour around the I-95 toll at Perryville and liked the savings.
People around Havre de Grace were not as keen about the column. For them, the Hatem toll was one of the best-kept secrets in Maryland, and they liked it that way. The decal was a symbol, too. If you had one, it meant you were smart, in the know, and hip to a local custom that saved money.
And the Suskie runners who had the decal didn't need E-ZPass, which meant in a way they didn't need to buy into Big Brother and disclose information about their credit cards, assuming them even had one.
When the Hatem decal went to $10 in 2009, it was still a great deal.
Now the Maryland Transportation Authority wants to raise the annual Hatem toll to $36 in October and to $72 by July 1, 2013, and there's a loud protest. Last week, more than 1,000 Suskie runners packed the auditorium, cafeteria and hallways of Perryville High School to condemn the proposed increase.
I think those folks protest too much. Come on now, people. Let's do a little math.
If you have to commute between Harford and Cecil County, and you do this daily during 48 weeks of the year, minus five holidays, at $5 a day, your bill for using I-95 is $1,175.
But, of course, the state offers a commuter discount on the big highway. If you have E-ZPass and buy into the Baltimore Region Discount Plan, you pay 80 cents per trip through the I-95 toll plaza. Commuting for 48 weeks minus holidays means you're using I-95 at least 235 days a year. That means your annual bill for tolls is $188.
Of course, if you're willing to take U.S. 40 and use the Hatem Bridge, your current annual bill is only $10.
The Maryland Transportation Authority now wants to phase out the Hatem decal and get more commuters into the E-ZPass system. If you do this, the annual fee for using the Hatem Bridge goes to $36 starting Oct. 1 and $72 in 2013.
But even at $72, the Hatem bridge will still be a great deal for commuters — 30 cents a day for 235 days a year — to continue to use a 71-year-old bridge that needs repair.
So I don't have much sympathy for the protest over cost. It sounds like whining about a good thing spoiled.
However, I am with the Harford-Cecil rebellion in its spirited resistance to the E-ZPass system, its credit card requirements and its user fees. What's wrong with keeping the decal system for those who want it? That bar code on the rear driver's-side door means something — that the owner of the vehicle is a proud Suskie runner, a little smarter than everyone else, and not as tied to Big Brother as everyone else. The people in that area want to cling to that, and I say good for them — as long as they pay.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.