- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2011

Vacationers who drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Ocean City and elsewhere on the Eastern Shore could pay roughly three times as much under a sweeping toll increase proposed Thursday.

The proposal by the Maryland Transportation Authority board would raise millions by increasing the rates at seven of the state’s eight toll facilities over the next two years. The announcement has been expected for weeks, but it still was met with a mix of resignation and opposition.

“The MDTA board has scaled back projects and reduced expenses to delay an increase in tolls as long as possible,” board member Louise P. Hoblitzell said. “However, the time has come when additional revenue is required to keep pace with the cost of constructing and maintaining our facilities.”

Transportation officials have said the plan could bring $77 million in first-year revenue to maintain aging toll facilities. The proposed increases would include a hike in commuter rates, which have not been changed since 1985.

The toll on the Bay Bridge, paid by eastbound drivers only, would go from $2.50 to $5 on Oct. 1 and to $8 in July 2013. The cost for E-ZPass users would go from $2.50 to $4.50 to $7.20, and the commuter rate would rise from $1 to $1.50 to $2.80.

State Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley warned on May 12 that toll increases were likely and she defended the proposal as necessary to maintaining facilities that are in some cases more than 50 years old.

The MDTA operates from a fund separate from the state’s other road and transportation agencies.

Some legislators already have lashed out at the proposal, calling it another tax on residents and arguing it could hurt areas like the Eastern Shore that have commuters and rely on visitors.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Cecil Republican, pointed out that Shore residents who commute daily across the bridge could pay about $450 more a year.

“I just think that the [administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley] is out of touch with working families,” he said. “For us, this is a new version of highway robbery.”

The public has until Aug. 1 to comment on the proposal. The MDTA is expected to make a final decision later this summer, and increases for cars and light trucks would go into effect Oct. 1. A second round of increases would take effect in 2013.

E-ZPass and general rates for cars and light trucks on three Baltimore-area roads - the Francis Scott Key Bridge and Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels - would go from $2 to $3 on Oct. 1 and to $4 in July 2013. Commuter rates would increase from 40 cents to 90 cents to $1.40.

The Intercounty Connector, which now extends from Shady Grove to Olney, is the state’s lone unaffected toll road. It opened in February.

Residents may issue written comments or testify at any of nine public hearings, the first of which will be held June 9 in Gaithersburg. For more information, go to mdta.maryland.gov.

• David Hill can be reached at dhill@washingtontimes.com.

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