- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Maryland Transportation Authority board will vote Sept. 22 on a revised set of toll increases after residents and some officials complained that previously proposed hikes were too steep.

The new proposal, recommended Thursday by acting MDTA Executive Secretary Randolph P. Brown, would impose increases at seven of the state’s eight toll facilities that are more modest than those proposed in June by the agency board.

Transportation officials initially sought to double or triple toll rates for most drivers to help fund maintenance and improvements to aging toll facilities. But they ran into opposition from residents at several public hearings.

The authority operates separately from the Maryland Department of Transportation and is funded entirely by tolls and other revenues from its facilities. MDOT is funded by its Transportation Trust Fund, established in 1971.

“I think this is just part of the process that we set out with at the beginning,” Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, state transportation secretary and MDTA board chairwoman, said Thursday. “We had always left ourselves the room to come back with a final proposal based upon what we heard at hearings.”

One of the initial plan’s most controversial aspects was a proposed hike on eastbound tolls across the Bay Bridge, which would have increased the existing $2.50 rate for cars and light trucks to $5 on Nov. 1 and to $8 in July 2013.

The revised plan would instead raise the rate to $4 this year and $6 in 2013. Eastern Shore legislators decried the initial proposed increase as a burden on residents who drive over the bridge to work and visitors who travel to the Eastern Shore for vacation.

Under the new plan, Bay Bridge E-ZPass users who now pay $2.50 a trip would have to pay $3.60 starting Nov. 1 and $5.40 in 2013. The previous proposal would have increased rates to $4.50 and $7.20 on those dates.

The new proposal would also raise the bridge’s $1 commuter rate — unchanged since 1983 — to $2.10 in 2013, rather than previously proposed hikes to $1.50 on Nov. 1 and $2.80 in 2013.

The changes also include reduced toll increases for recreational trailers and small freight vehicles.

“While the new revision is a slight decrease, it’s still too high a toll to impose during these recessionary times,” Sen. Richard F. Colburn, Dorchester Republican, said Thursday. He added that the response he heard from residents was more than 90 percent opposed to toll increases.

Revisions made to the Bay Bridge plan are identical to those made for the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland.

Authority officials only slightly altered their plans for other toll facilities. Tolls for most drivers on the Baltimore area’s Francis Scott Key Bridge and Baltimore Harbor and Fort McHenry tunnels will still double, from $2 to $4, by July 2013, while commuter and E-ZPass rates will also increase.

Minor changes were made to toll proposals for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge in the northeastern region of the state.

The Intercounty Connector, which opened this year and will run from Montgomery County to Prince George’s County, is the lone toll facility that will not see increases.

Ms. Swaim-Staley said this summer that the initial proposal would have netted $77 million in increased first-year revenue for the state. She did not provide an updated estimate Thursday, but said the funds are desperately needed to maintain the facilities.

MDTA’s financial woes are similar, but unrelated, to those of MDOT and its Transportation Trust Fund. While transportation officials are proposing $800 million in new revenue — including $520 million in new taxes and fees — for MDOT use, none of the funds would go to toll facilities.

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

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