State toll increases take effect Tuesday

7 of 8 highways, bridges, tunnels cost more

  • The toll booth at the Francis Scott Key Bridge gives evidence to the first phase of the largest package of toll increases in Maryland's history, taking effect Tuesday.
The toll booth at the Francis Scott Key Bridge gives evidence… (Lloyd Fox / The Baltimore…)
October 31, 2011|Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Gene Egeberg of Bethesda, whose professional travel takes him across Baltimore Harbor several times a day, figures the new toll increases in Maryland will cost him $294 per year.

And in 2013, that will go up to $517.

After months of debate and contentious public hearings, the first phase of the largest toll hike in Maryland history became official at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. The increases affect seven of the state's eight toll highways, tunnels and bridges. Only the Intercounty Connector, a partly opened toll road that uses a variable pricing scheme based on traffic levels, is exempt.

Egeberg, a certified public accountant, said there will be occasions — if he isn't pressed for time — when he'll choose to make a slow crawl through the city rather than pay the higher toll at the Fort McHenry Tunnel.

"It's definitely going to make me think twice before I go through the tunnel," he said.

The Maryland Transportation Authority board voted in September to impose the toll increases, setting Nov. 1 as the effective date for the first round.

At the three Baltimore Harbor crossings — the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Harbor Tunnel and the Key Bridge — drivers as of Tuesday pay a $3 cash rate each way instead of the $2 they've been kicking in since 2003.

On the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, as Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore is known, the basic northbound toll has risen from $5 to $6. At the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Susquehanna River on U.S. 40, the same rate applies.

On the Bay Bridge, where a bargain $2.50 toll had been frozen in place since the 1970s, motorists' luck has run out. The rate is now $4 — collected eastbound only — at least sparing drivers the ordeal of fumbling with change. In Southern Maryland, users of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge found they, too, had to pay $4 instead of the previous $3 to make the southbound Potomac River crossing.

Tuesday's increases will be followed by a second round in July 2013 that will push the cost of a round trip at the harbor crossings, the Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Bridge to $8. The increases at the Bay and Nice bridges will be held to $6; the authority board decided an earlier plan to more than double the tolls at the two spans was too much, too soon.

The increases follow a national trend of rising tolls as bridge, tunnel and highway authorities struggle to cope with the problem of aging infrastructure. But that doesn't make the impact any easier to absorb here.

Tim Huss of Towson figures that the increase tips the balance in his decisions on a route to Severna Park.

"I'd go around by Catonsville way instead of going through Dundalk and Essex," he said – a longer and frequently more congested route, but toll-free.

Like a significant number of Marylanders, Huss suspected the toll increases are the result of the General Assembly's diversion of money from the Transportation Trust Fund to balance the state budget. But Harold Bartlett, executive secretary of the transportation authority, said that's not the case.

"We get no tax dollars at all, and we get no funds from the Transportation Trust Fund. Our entire budget is derived from the toll revenues we collect," he said.

Bartlett said the toll increases were driven by the increased cost of maintenance and by the construction of two expensive mega-projects: the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs and the $1 billion addition of express toll lanes to help relieve congestion on I-95 northeast of Baltimore.

"You have to generate enough revenue to pay the debt," Bartlett said.

The express toll lanes won't begin kicking in revenue until they open in 2014. But the ICC, which has been partly open since February, will begin collecting significantly more revenue Dec. 5, two weeks after the Nov. 22 opening of the section connecting the Interstate 270 corridor with I-95.

The road will be toll-free from its opening day through Dec. 4. After that, Bartlett said, tolls will be collected, bringing in enough money to cover the highway's operating expenses.

The tolls from that 18-mile highway won't be enough to pay for the cost of building it, however.

Bartlett noted that the authority pools the revenue from all its facilities so that dollars collected in other places are helping to pay off the loans for the ICC. Similarly, fares from the McHenry tunnel are used to shore up the eroding foundations of the Millard E. Tydings and Hatem Memorial bridges – two of the expensive maintenance jobs the authority is undertaking.

"We're putting a lot of money into the Hatem and Tydings for underwater repairs that are very expensive," Bartlett said.

Egeberg finds that system objectionable — even though it's enshrined in all-but-unbreakable bond covenants with the state's debt holders.

"The Harbor Tunnel should be paid for by the Harbor Tunnel," he said. "I don't think they should be mixing and matching."

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