Hatem toll hike would be disaster for local communities and state economy

July 05, 2011

I believe that Marylanders understand that there are two types of people in this state — those who make the laws, and those who are forced to follow them.

The recent proposal by the Maryland Transportation Authority to raise tolls hits hard in all areas of the state, but the hardest hit are Cecil and Harford counties. These two counties are remarkably intertwined, and outsiders fail to realize how much one county depends on the other. The proposed toll increase for the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge is far greater than those proposed elsewhere in Maryland and will require an unending investment in the EZPass system.

Based on what I've read, the Hatem Bridge took in $12 million over the past three years. During this time there has been a free decal renewal system in place which makes this an artificially low number on which to base any fiscal decision. Meanwhile, $74 million was reportedly spent in maintaining the bridge during the same time period. This number is artificially inflated as the bridge was undergoing massive re-decking. If properly amortized (let's say $74 million once every 20 years), we are talking about a real maintenance cost of less than $12 million over that same 3 year period. The fact the MdTA has grossly manipulated (to the point of almost being deceitful) the financial facts while making their argument suggests to me that they actually break even on the Hatem Bridge.

Looking at the toll increase, we are talking about moving from a $10 per year toll system to a system that requires an annual $36 fee, plus $18 in monthly charges and $25 deposited to maintain a sufficient balance. While you don't actually spend the $25, it's not your money to spend freely thus tying up personal capital for the state to hold onto interest-free indefinitely. The total first-year cost is now $79 and moving to a $90 maintenance fee sometime in 2013. That is a huge increase in costs for the community.

The MdTA is also shortsighted to think that this proposed system can't be cheated. For multiple car families (which is almost a given in rural Maryland) one EZPass could serve as a means of transporting all cars across the river. Just swap out the transponder from one car to another. Thus, the bridge revenue will fall far short of what officials are projecting. Furthermore, people already in Cecil County who decide not to get an EZPass will drive to Delaware for the nearest bowling alley, home improvement warehouse, department store, or restaurant. That will cause a decrease in state sales tax receipts and eventually a loss of jobs. The EZPass system would be a real loser for Maryland.

The above arguments lead me to believe that the increased revenue will not support crossing the Susquehanna River. It will go to support other projects in this state. For two counties that get very little attention from the lawmakers in Annapolis (unless we're talking about a casino or BRAC), it seems unjust that our rural communities have to endure such an increase while those living in the metropolitan areas get new highways and roads costing billions of dollars that are of little use to those of us living in Cecil and Harford counties.

If the tolls need to be raised, make it fair to those of us who live in the state, pay taxes here, and buy our goods here. I'm all for a $20 decal, or the same $10 decal with a 6-month term. Just don't kill inter-county transportation and state commerce.

I hold hope in my heart that the MdTA will actually listen to the public outcry, review the facts properly and come up with a fair solution to this problem. This country is still in a time of economic turmoil, and while Maryland has fared better than most states because of the federal government's presence, our own state government is digging deeper into everyone's pockets in order to benefit a select few.

Michael Lister, Perryville

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