MTA toll hearing comes to the Eastern Shore

Last night over 250 people came to listen or generally express their opposition to a series of proposed toll hikes at the Bay Bridge and several other structures operated by the Maryland Transportation Authority.

This was a panoramic shot I took just as the event was beginning.

Of course, the MTA had flyers, a video, and a series of presentation boards available in an adjacent room to state their case. As you can see in the first photo below, they had a room full of boards. Below that are a few examples.

The sum of their case was that they needed toll increases to fix their aging infrastructure, while other goals were to standardize their toll structure, incorporate the cost of collection into the toll, and have vehicles pay a “proportionate share” of their costs.

On the other hand, Nick Loffer of AFP-Maryland was outside rallying the troops to sign a petition against the toll increases.

And the media was there as well. For all I know, I was on the news.

The two local Delegates also made their presence known. Norm Conway was being interviewed by the media while Mike McDermott chatted up the crowd; in this case fellow local blogger G.A. Harrison.

Delegates Charles Otto of Somerset County and Jay Jacobs of Kent County were also there and testified in opposition.

The hearing itself started a short time after those in the room had assembled. We watched the short MTA video stating its side, and their members pled the case that “Maryland has some of the lowest tolls in the country.” But Board Chairwoman Beverley Swaim-Staley also wanted to point out the toll increases were intended to “generate enough revenue…to maintain (our) bond rating.” It was also pointed out that EZPass patrons (except communters) would get a break.

Interestingly enough, the Board sat silent through the testimony, as one ground rule laid out was that they wouldn’t respond to questions or comments.

Elected officials were allowed to pull rank and testify first. It began with Wicomico County Republican Central Committee member Dave Goslee noting, “people’s wages are not going up…government should live within its budget.”

It set the tone for remarks by Pocomoke City Mayor Bruce Morrison, who stated he and the three members of his City Council all came to show their opposition to the proposal. “Think of us on the Shore, too,” he pleaded.

But Mike McDermott got the crowd on its feet.

McDermott thundered, “The Bay Bridge is a cash cow for the state of Maryland!” He also wondered how the MTA came up with an $8 toll figure, feeling that was “arbitrary.” “No one would be here for (an increase of) 50 cents,” said McDermott.

Then he asked what the need was. Answering his own question, Mike claimed that I-95 improvements and the Inter-County Connector are going to be financed by “you and me” on the Eastern Shore.

While he went way over the allotted five minutes, the patrons didn’t mind and gave McDermott a standing ovation once he was through.

“I want (the Bay Bridge) to be as strong and dependable  as it can be,” remarked Norm Conway. But the audience booed Conway when he said “most people would consider” a $5 toll to cross the bridge. He asked the MTA board to listen to people across the state and perhaps readjust the toll structure for SUVs.

Speaking on behalf of State Senator Jim Mathias, Linda Donaldson stated the Senator’s suggestions to proceed were:

  • A “significant discount” for EZPass
  • A “significant” commuter discount
  • Be mindful of the overall cost of operating vehicles
  • The fundamental need for public safety on the structures

Delegate Jay Jacobs, who was on his third hearing for the toll increase, believed that “a 300 percent increase in tolls, I guarantee, will send people to Delaware shopping.”

And while Delegate Charles Otto called the Bay Bridge a “godsend” for the Shore, he pointed out it may cost trucks an extra $1 per mile to go from the Bay Bridge to Salisbury when the tolls are factored in. “I hate to get political, but all I heard this time last year was that a fee was a tax,” concluded Charles.

I testified at the event as well. This is how I wrote the draft of my remarks; it wasn’t quite the Gettysburg Address but it got applause:

Good evening.

My name is Michael Swartz and I’m proud to be an elected member of Wicomico County’s Republican Central Committee.

First of all, I’d like to thank the MTA for bowing to demand and having a hearing on the Eastern Shore. By my count, the closest MTA facility is about 90 miles from here so one might think we’re not affected by a toll increase.

But we are. It’s going to affect tourism, it’s going to affect commuters, and most importantly I see a negative impact on our agricultural industry.

After all, $8 to cross a bridge isn’t a large part of someone’s vacation budget. But increasing the rates on commuters could hamper growth and progress on the Eastern Shore. Over here we already feel shellacked as victims of the “War on Rural Maryland.” They couldn’t take away our septic systems, but they can throttle development in other ways like making the Eastern Shore a more expensive place to live.

More importantly, one should consider the impact a toll increase would have on commerce. Because we have little in the way of railroads or port facilities on the Eastern Shore, over-the-road trucking is truly our one option for both delivering and providing goods and commodities, as Mr. Goslee and Delegate Jacobs pointed out before. A large toll increase would be detrimental, and basically amounts to a redistribution of our wealth to other parts of the state.

A smarter plan would be to keep the tolls where they are, but if an increase is necessary it needs to be smaller and phased in over a longer period. It’s not our fault you didn’t raise tolls earlier, so don’t make us bite the bullet now.

Thank you.

From the AFP perspective, Nick Loffer made the overall suggestion of running the toll facilities as a business and regionalizing the operation. He chided the MTA for a lack of forethought and felt that created the anger in the audience.

Other speakers from the audience termed the toll increase a “soft tyranny,” believed the decision is already made, and called the increases an “assault on the middle class.”

There were also several business leaders who spoke up. The toll increase would be “a wedge…that turns the Bay into a barrier,” claimed Brad Bellacicco of the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce. One business owner, who runs a turf farm in both Anne Arundel and Queen Anne’s counties, believed the increase would add a $150 per acre cost to his business, tripling the tax on his four-truck fleet from $16,000 to $48,000.

Needless to say, tourism and Ocean City officials chimed in, too. Tourism creates 134,000 Maryland jobs and $1.6 billion in revenue, according to the Maryland Tourism Council. Their official warned of “unintended consequences” from the hikes. “Without tourism, we have no jobs in Ocean City,” added the director of their hotel and motel association.

Closing the testimony, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, who stated that his town attracts 8 million visitors a year and creates $150 million in state revenues,  pleaded with the board to “moderate your position (and) discount EZPass.”

I look at this more as a development issue, however. If fewer people come to the Shore as tourists, fewer jobs are created and fewer people have an incentive to locate here. And while that may suit a lot of Shore natives just fine, the corollary effect of increasing business costs will be to drive jobs out of the area. We already lose a lot of our local college graduates who can’t find good-paying jobs in the area.

Not one person last night said $8 was a great idea. Yes, there was one crank who considered this part of the war on the middle class promoted by greedy corporations and rich Republicans like Andy Harris, but we can ignore his screed. Some on the conservative side also strayed well off the topic at hand, which was a problem.

As I’ve said, a modest toll increase may be required but not a giant jump as is planned. A suggestion I didn’t hear last night but will toss into the hopper: perhaps they can bring construction costs down by eliminating “prevailing wage.”

Alas, I think the die has been cast. All we opponents did was have our say, but the state needs the money. Think of it as a prelude to this fall when the General Assembly really loots our wallets.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.