Taking less of a toll

It wasn’t completely unexpected. but just in time for the height of tourist season travelers around the state will retain a little extra in their pockets when they cross one of Maryland’s toll roads or bridges, including the Bay Bridge. Yesterday Governor Hogan announced a toll reduction he claimed would save Marylanders $270 million over the next five years. For those coming to the Eastern Shore, it will save them $2 on the trip – not much, but the symbolism is strong.

Commuters, though, will get more of a break as their tolls drop from $2.10 to $1.40 per trip. Factor in the elimination of the EZPass service charge – which cost Maryland drivers $1.50 a month and probably drove some of that business to other states which don’t charge a service fee – and you’re closing in on a $30 per month break. That’s the same as getting a 15-cent an hour raise.

Of course the Maryland Democratic Party found fault with this:

Today, Larry Hogan announced that tolls at the Bay Bridge would go down.

Meanwhile, the cost of in-state tuition at State Universities went up 7%.

Despite his campaign promises, Marylanders are paying more under Larry Hogan.

Since I don’t go to an in-state university but occasionally use the Bay Bridge, this is yet another desperate attempt at spin by Democrats. It’s also worth pointing out that July 1 will also see a 2.5 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax – an increase Democrats failed to stop when they had the chance this term. This will decrease the benefit for commuters who use the Bay Bridge and other toll facilities and take more from the pockets of the rest of us, to the tune of a dollar or two per month.

The complaint I’m waiting for from the mouths of Democrats is the one where they will begin to complain about the prospect of neglecting maintenance on these toll roads and spans. But Hogan’s Secretary of Transportation was confident the money will be there:

“I have thoroughly reviewed the toll-reduction plan, and I’m confident the MDTA will continue to maintain its sound financial footing and commitment to safety and quality services,” said MDTA Chairman and Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn. “A lot of hard work went into the development of this proposal, and I’d like to thank MDTA board members for their careful analysis and approval of this toll-reduction plan.”

Another gripe sure to come from our tax-and-spend friends on the left is that the O’Malley fare increases for mass transit weren’t cut as well – I can see the carping by representatives in areas dependent on mass transit. That, however, is a money pit as farebox revenue comes nowhere close to meeting the expenses of those services.

This all leaves one other transportation shoe to drop, and advocates for the Purple Line are pressing for Hogan to keep the rail line going. However, if Hogan pulls the plug on that and the Red Line in Baltimore most of the justification for the O’Malley gas tax and farebox increases is gone, or the funding could be used for more important projects like some I’ve detailed before, such as completing the intended route of I-97 with Virginia’s help or improving the U.S. 13 corridor through Delaware with their assistance.

So I consider this news to be a pleasant surprise in a situation where input from the General Assembly majority was not needed. When the chips are down, though, it seems the Republicans are the only ones we can count on to truly help the working family.

Quotable tax quotes

Yesterday Maryland wallets got a little bit lighter as travelers over most of Maryland’s tollways had to dig a little deeper into their wallets, and those motorists unfortunate enough to need to fill up their gas tanks chipped in another forty cents or so to the state’s coffers. (My travels take me to Delaware today – guess where I’ll fill up?) And those with property in nine of Maryland’s counties? They just saw a significant property tax increase. (The exceptions are the fourteen rural counties not yet covered by the state’s new “impervious surface fee” derisively known as the “rain tax” and those property owners in Frederick County who will pay exactly one penny per piece of property.)

Needless to say, a number of state Republicans weighed in on the topic:

State GOP Chair Diana Waterman: “This irresponsible taxation and the reckless spending it supports offers an opportunity for those of us who believe in good government. As Republicans, we are in a great position to remind our fellow Maryland residents why 2014 must be the year we send a loud message to the Democrats that it’s time to put people first.”

Maryland Young Republican Chair Brian Griffiths: “These taxes will hurt all Marylanders and huge sections of our economy as businesses are forced to raise prices to cover the costs of these new taxes, the costs of which will invariably be passed on to the consumers. At the end of the day, just these three tax increases will likely cost each Marylander over $1,000 a year that could be better spent to stimulate our economy and create job growth.”

Several other state Republican leaders were quoted on the Maryland Politics blog, part of the Baltimore Sun. Writer Michael Dresser quoted the group as calling this a “virtual downpour” of tax increases.

Candidates for Governor weren’t missing the opportunity, either.

David Craig: “(W)e are witnessing yet another example of how the one-party monopoly in Annapolis is working for itself and not for you. With the increase in tolls and the first of multiple increases in the gas tax, Maryland families are being forced to give more of their hard earned dollars to a failing and ineffective government.”

Craig also put together a brief video with a similar message. (Shouldn’t it have an authority line, though?)

On the rain tax, David added, “Stormwater-related costs necessary to comply with EPA mandates are projected to cost county taxpayers a staggering $6.3 billion through 2025. If you wanted to open a business with a parking lot, would you want to come to Maryland and figure out this new tax?”

Ron George: “O’Malley/Brown now are stealing from your summer vacation funds. Since they robbed and misspent what was needed for transportation, they are now grabbing your money through tolls, rain and gas. As you look at the bay bridge behind me, it is an example of what is happening around Maryland. More and more people on the Eastern Shore, which has lost manufacturing jobs, have to drive to Washington and Virginia for a job, if they have a job. Less and less people on the Western shore will drive to doctors and businesses on the Eastern Shore.”

“This is not how you build an economy.”

Charles Lollar: “To think that just a few weeks ago, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown stated that Maryland had a ‘great session’ makes me wonder what great accomplishment they had. Was it the Rain Tax that punishes citizens when it rains because of how much ‘impervious surface’ they have on their property? Was it the fee increase for tolls up to $6? Or was it the gas tax increase that pretty much goes up year after year?”

Even though he’s not a candidate, it’s no surprise that Change Maryland had some reaction as well.

Larry Hogan: “Your family trip to the beach just got a lot more expensive. Today, the second round of O’Malley toll increases took effect and the gas tax increase kicked in at the same time. While you are sitting in traffic at the Bay Bridge for the 4th of July weekend you can thank Governor O’Malley and the monopoly in Annapolis for the 140% increase in tolls, and for giving us the most expensive gas in the region.”

“Governor O’Malley says he’s ‘Moving Maryland Forward’. But if that’s moving Maryland forward, I say maybe next year, we’ll just have to take Maryland back!”

Needless to say, our governor didn’t look at it this way, placing a splashy graphic on his Facebook page:

These, of course, are numbers coming from the same guy who has “cut” billions in state spending yet whose budget has increased by 30% since taking office in 2007. At 9,500 jobs a year, he’s barely making a dent in Maryland’s chronic unemployment, nor is he accounting for the potential of job losses in various industries dependent on people having extra money, such as tourism. Just as a real-world example, it would take just over 22 years for O’Malley to get to full employment gaining 9,500 jobs a year (based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment estimate of 210,800 unemployed Maryland workers in May.) Obviously that doesn’t account for population growth, either.

But what slays me is the concept of building a “21st century transportation network” using the 19th century technology of the railroad. Granted, rail transport has its place in commerce and trade, but as currently practiced it is woefully inefficient for the needs of most commuters. (If it weren’t inefficient on an overall scale, why are such a small percentage of Maryland workers using it?) I think my concept of an improved transportation network – which could also include a widening of I-70 beyond Frederick, to avoid the usual bottleneck of merging I-270 traffic and allow smoother flow westward – is far more practical than the O’Malley/Brown vision.

The idea of a good transportation network is to get people and goods to where they need to go, not pretend that a light rail boondoggle which will cost billions is the panacea. I don’t think people would mind the additional transportation taxes and tolls as much if they were confident the money would be used to repair and improve our highways and bridges – instead, most of it seems to be earmarked for two rail lines and one toll road few will use.

Similarly, we all want a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, but the idea of a mandate from on high which affects some more than others and is to be used for a concept where fruition is a constantly-shifting set of goalposts (because it’s in the best interest for those who created the benchmarks to continue as a political entity if the problem is never solved) simply seems unfair to those saddled with paying this fee on top of their remaining tax burden.

That’s why we’re angry. But Democrats are wagering that all this will be forgotten in 17 months’ time, particularly as some of these transportation projects reach the groundbreaking stage, with its requisite photo-op.

But consider the relative lightness of your wallet when you see your local Democrat gladhanding at this photo-op. If we simply used proper prioritization for transportation funding, we wouldn’t have needed to raise the gas tax every year from here to eternity.

That’s the common sense woefully missing from state government.

Two Marylanders discuss state economy

Two critics had differing takes on the state economy this week. One of them is running for governor while the other continues to expand its grassroots effort as some question whether its leader will throw his hat into that ring.

The latter critic, Larry Hogan of Change Maryland, noted with disbelief that Maryland lost 5,700 jobs in May:

Every month in Maryland is like Groundhog’s Day – over and over again we hear this administration talk about jobs, yet more times than not, Maryland families wake up to learn once again our state has lost jobs. Career politicians think that if they say something enough times, it will eventually become true. And while the O’Malley / Brown administration likes to talk about jobs, the cold harsh reality is that 5,700 hard working Marylanders lost their job last month.

The time for results is long overdue and the O’Malley / Brown administration has no more excuses left. They have been at the helm of our state’s economy for seven years, there is no one else to blame for these job losses. The need for real change in Maryland has never been more clear.

While O’Malley / Brown claimed 4,600 jobs were created in Maryland during May in the aftermath of the “Bush Recession” – never mind the six years of prosperity which occurred before O’Malley’s party became Congressional obstructionists – Change Maryland actually links to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data which shows the number of unemployed rose from 205,100 to 210,800 in May, a number which increased unemployment by 0.2 percent.

Perhaps that’s why Change Maryland has become a social media juggernaut, eclipsing by far the social media presence of Maryland’s current statewide candidates and their affiliated parties.

Meanwhile, announced gubernatorial hopeful Ron George blasted O’Malley / Brown for Maryland’s poor grade in a national report on manufacturing climate, a grade which has remained subpar throughout O’Malley’s tenure. Said Delegate George:

This is why manufacturing jobs are a big part of (my) “Economic Development And Maryland Jobs Plan”. I see Baltimore and small towns on the Eastern Shore, Western and Southern Maryland hurting because the democratic leadership does not understand how to create jobs and true economic growth. I will bring manufacturing jobs back to Maryland.

While his general outline is fairly sketchy, I believe we should strive to create more manufacturing jobs. Yet there is one aspect of a business climate generally overlooked.

On Monday travelers will be forced to shoulder a greater burden of the cost of transportation as increased tolls on Maryland bridges (including the Bay Bridge) and highways take effect on the very same day the gasoline tax is increased. Ostensibly these increases are to fund maintenance on what we already have as well as supposedly provide the seed money to build new commuter rail lines in Baltimore and in the Washington suburbs. Perhaps that would be fantastic for the 1 out of 12 Maryland workers which actually use mass transit and may jump that number all the way to 1 in 10 or maybe the stratospheric heights of 1 in 9. But that leaves the rest of us.

Building commuter rail probably won’t clear enough cars off the highways to appreciably improve the ability for trucks to traverse Maryland’s roadways. Aside from State Senator E.J. Pipkin – who has several times introduced legislation to this effect – no one is seriously thinking about the real infrastructure improvement of a midpoint crossing of Chesapeake Bay, one which would make Eastern Shore goods more accessible to Virginia and points west and encourage tourism from an area now mired with the prospect of hours of travel for going a comparatively short distance as the crow flies.

Nor are they considering upgrading the U.S. 13 corridor through Delmarva to provide an alternate north-south route from Wilmington and points north to Norfolk and regions south. Another options benefiting the state would be to finish the abandoned I-97 route to Richmond. Either of these would require regional cooperation, but neither seem to be a priority for a governor who would rather move a few people between menial jobs than move lots of goods and tourists around the region in a timely manner.

We have the willing and reasonably skilled labor force ready to work. Now we need a government which thinks long-term about real possibilities, not pie-in-the-sky schemes and imaginary boogeymen like global warming.

Developing the Shore

There were a couple items I wanted to pass along because, as one who would prefer the area grow rather than shrivel up and die, we could use the help.

I’ll begin with Andy Harris:

(On Tuesday), Rep. Andy Harris (MD-01) joined Rep. Scott Rigell (VA-02) to pass legislation through the House that could create hundreds of jobs at an expanded Wallops Research Park, which is located near NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. The bill removes restrictive federal government deed provisions that hinder job creation on the Delmarva. The legislation creates these jobs at no cost to hard-working taxpayers. Additionally, up to half of the potential high-paying jobs could be filled by Maryland’s Eastern Shore residents.

“We need to work to reduce undue burdens that the Federal Government is placing on the ability of local communities to create jobs,” said Rep. Andy Harris. “I will support any bill like this that helps foster an environment for job creation while costing hard-working taxpayers nothing.”

And then there’s former Harris opponent Senator E.J. Pipkin, working on the state side:

Senator E.J. Pipkin…announced that the Senate Finance Committee has approved his bill – SB 818 – to begin the process required to consider building a third span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Pipkin said, “I am elated that the Committee has taken the first step in the long journey toward what must happen – construction of another Bay Bridge span. No one who uses the Bay Bridge on a daily commute or on a weekend to visit Ocean City will debate the necessity for a third span.”

Senator Pipkin pointed out that the bridge carries an average of 68,000 vehicles each day. Five mile backups are not unusual at any time, but are common in the summer when an average of 100,000 vehicles cross the bay each day. “The bridge has the dubious distinction of having the worst traffic delays on the northeast coast,” he said. The Bay Bridge Transportation Needs Report revealed that 402 accidents occurred during its 3-year study period; a significantly higher volume than for similar highways.


Before any large project can commence, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires an Environmental Impact Statement. The process includes a public scoping process, data collection, analysis of policy alternatives and preparation of draft and final documents, all of which takes 6.1 years, as estimated in 2003. “Putting Maryland into the NEPA process would finally address the issue of a third span and enable us to make policy decisions to move forward,” declared Senator Pipkin.

Using the cost of NEPA studies for the ICC as a base and adjusting for inflation, the Department of Legislative Services projects a cost of $35 million between 2013-2017 for the NEPA study. The MdTA would pay for the cost of the study out of its operating expenses. “Last summer, the MdTA approved the largest toll increase in the State’s history, so it comes as a surprise that it now claims that this process would be too expensive.”

Pipkin stressed that SB 818 does not require that a third Bay Bridge be built, but enables us to move forward to the next step in considering our transportation needs. It will take 15 to 20 years to build a new Bay Bridge.

The role of government is not to provide a vehicle for crony capitalism, but work on those areas which benefit the public at large. It seems like the Harris/Rigell measure does just that. Knowing Wallops Island is a federal installation which is vital for the national defense (a legitimate Constitutional function) I see no problem with private enterprise having a share in that success. To be quite honest, I never knew there was a Wallops Research Park, but that’s in part because it’s a little off the beaten path. Maybe that was part of their problem as well.

Of course, the local infrastructure may need improvement as the main highway to Wallops Island is the same two-lane artery which takes tourist traffic beyond Wallops Island to Chincoteague. At some point if the new venture is successful we may have to see Virginia Route 175 dualized – but that’s probably at least a decade off.

Transportation woes are hopefully being addressed with Pipkin’s proposal as well. But I believe a third span would be much more practical several miles south of the existing Bay Bridge. Geographically it makes a lot of sense to have a span from Dorchester County to Calvert County at a point where the Bay is relatively narrow, but I could already imagine the hue and cry from environmentalists and NIMBY types, particularly on the Eastern Shore. This would also require Maryland Route 16 to be seriously upgraded, at least to Cambridge.

But there would be advantages as well, particularly on the tourism and accessibility front. Opening a southern route may encourage more commerce between the fast-growing counties of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Why should the mid-Shore reap all the benefits from a Bay crossing?

As Pipkin says, though, we are probably a couple decades away from a third span and by then there may not be anything left of the Lower Shore to connect with except for Ocean City. A state which is doing its best to strangle rural development in the War on Rural Maryland isn’t going to care whether we receive help or not, just as long as the tax dollars arrive.

A softened blow, but it will still hurt

Eastern Shore drivers will get a one-month reprieve from Bay Bridge toll hikes – but it’s still likely the prices will rise steeply.

As originally envisioned, Bay Bridge tolls would jump to $5 come October and skyrocket to $8 in 2013. Instead, the MTA is expected to vote next Thursday on a proposal to increase Bay Bridge tolls to $4 on November 1 and $6 in July 2013. So we’ll “only” have a 240% increase instead of a 320% increase.

Still, this will take a larger bite out of our pockets and as a percentage (with some exceptions for Baltimore-area commuters, who now pay less than $1 to cross at various Baltimore-area points) those using the Bay Bridge will see the largest increase in tolls across the system.

While we all figured a toll increase was a fait accompli, I think the grudging preference among those who testified at our hearing (aside from Norm “Five Dollar” Conway) was that increases be phased in slowly and not with such a steep incline as to increase over threefold in the span of two years. We got a little bit of modification, but it’s clear the MTA is going to rely on Eastern Shore drivers to be the cash cow for years to come – although Baltimore-area commuters have a point in saying they’ll be unfairly targeted too.

On the other hand, the newest toll highway in the MTA portfolio will still be exempt from increases as the Intercounty Connector doesn’t see a hike. That highway is a little bit different in that there is no cash toll and drivers are charged on a sliding scale of anywhere between 15 cents and $3.94 per mile depending on time of day and number of axles. Yet they won’t have to bear any additional burden, at least for the time being.

So while we can thank the MTA for apparently listening to our concerns, it’s interesting to note that a comment in response to the story by David Hill in yesterday’s Washington Times on the toll hike concluded the increase to $6 was the plan all along and the $8 figure was just in place to make us feel like we won something at the end. And it is indeed tempting to think that the O’Malley administration would have been thrilled if no one showed up to complain about $8 at the Bay Bridge – remember, the Eastern Shore hearing wasn’t originally planned but added due to popular demand.

Yet they will still get additional millions out of the deal – maybe not the $77 million projected annually by the original proposal, but perhaps a number in the range of $50-60 million on top of what they already make. They won’t be hurting for money, but Eastern Shore drivers might be.

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.

Speak now or forever pay more

Now through August 1, concerned Maryland citizens can have their say on the proposed toll increases for the Bay Bridge and other Maryland toll roads and bridges via a web form at www.mdta.maryland.gov or by writing to MDTA Toll Comments, 2310 Broening Highway, Baltimore, MD 21224. There will also be a series of public hearings beginning June 9:

  • June 9 (Montgomery County)
  • June 13 (Baltimore City)
  • June 14 (Prince George’s County)
  • June 15 (Queen Anne’s County)
  • June 16 (Cecil County)
  • June 20 (Anne Arundel County)
  • June 21 (Baltimore County)
  • June 22 (Charles County)
  • June 27 (Harford County)

Obviously they’re not soliciting the input of the Lower Eastern Shore, so the best route may be to send a comment directly to MDTA.

They defend the toll increase as necessary:

Two key forces are driving the proposal — paying for major construction work needed to keep these large, aging and expensive facilities both safe and operational and paying for additional highway capacity now under construction in the Baltimore and Washington regions.  MDTA’s tunnels, bridges and turnpikes are financially supported through tolls and not the State’s Transportation Trust Fund or General Fund. The additional revenue is needed to meet the current and future needs of these facilities.  The plan allows Maryland to offer some of the most generous commuter discounts in the country and keeps overall toll rates comparable with those elsewhere in the region.


Toll revenues fund safety, rehabilitation, customer-service and improvement projects Statewide, including $132 million in repairs for the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge (US 40); $121 million in work for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway (I-95); $225 million in repairs to the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge (US 50/301); $410 million in work for the three Baltimore Harbor crossings – the Fort McHenry (I-95, I-395) and Baltimore Harbor (I-895) tunnels and the Francis Scott Key Bridge (I-695); and $21 million in repairs to the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge (US 301).  In addition, the MDTA is constructing two major projects to address traffic congestion in Maryland.  They include the Express Toll Lanes along I-95 in the Baltimore region and the Intercounty Connector in the Washington region.

It has been years, decades in some cases, since the MDTA raised many of its toll rates.  The Bay Bridge toll rate for passenger vehicles is lower now than when the original span opened in 1952, when drivers of passenger cars paid $2.80 round trip, plus $.25 per passenger.  Toll rates for passenger vehicles were last raised in 2003 at the Baltimore toll facilities, the Kennedy Highway and the Hatem Bridge and in 2001 at the Nice Bridge. Commuter toll rates were last raised in 1985 for Baltimore toll facilities and in 1983 for the Bay and Nice bridges. Toll rates for vehicles with three or more axles were last raised at all facilities in 2009.

The funds to finance, operate, preserve, maintain, improve and protect Maryland’s eight toll facilities come directly from the tolls that customers pay.  The MDTA combines toll revenue from all facilities to pay operating costs and the debt on bonds that are issued to fund major projects.  Revenue “pooling” makes the MDTA financially strong with top bond ratings that reduce borrowing costs.

It’s understandable that repairs need to be made on aging infrastructure, but the increases seem rather excessive to those of us on the Eastern Shore when we’re not getting any of the new work. Why not leave the tolls alone on the Bay Bridge (or perhaps enact a modest increase, maybe $1 total phased in over the two years) but ramp up tolls in the areas receiving the work? It’s worth mentioning the the Inter-County Connector between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is exempt from the toll increases, yet much of the money extracted from other areas will go to finish that. Since Baltimore is getting the new express lanes, they can pay for that work with tolls increasing at a more modest pace.

In truth, the one thing which seems to upset people the most isn’t necessarily the rate hikes, but their scale. Just because tolls haven’t been raised in x number of years is no excuse to make it up all at once, but that’s what they wish to do. Others fret that the money will simply disappear into that giant black hole known as the state’s General Fund instead of funding the needed improvements. It’s not like we have a governor who would do such a thing, you know.

These fears are justified, particularly when this is couched as a continuation of the “War on the Shore.” Adding $20 or more per week to an Eastern Shore commuter’s toll is $1,000 per year less they can spend supporting local businesses. And don’t believe for a minute that those who oppose urban sprawl don’t support this move – it retards development on this side of the bridge and encourages mass transit. If a lane is ever added to the Bay Bridge, I can all but guarantee it will be one of those multi-passenger express lanes instead of one just anyone could use.

Make sure to make your voice heard!


The ‘war on the Shore’ – another shot fired across the bow

I’m not sure that our Congressman needs to be involved in this; then again I’m sure he’s going to be affected when his EZPass becomes more expensive.

But Andy Harris will be holding a press conference tomorrow afternoon in Stevensville to talk about “the proposed 320% Bay Bridge toll hike and other toll increases that will hurt Maryland families, Maryland businesses and job creators.” Included in that gabfest will be a number of Maryland legislators and local business owners who will be affected by the fee increases. I won’t be there, but it’s relatively predictable that Harris would come out against toll increases which may hit just about the same time the General Assembly is debating a gas tax hike.

Of course, the Maryland Transportation Authority defends the increases, citing an increased need for maintenance on aging infrastructure. But the problem is that we’ve been paying the tolls for years, yet Annapolis continues to raid the transportation funds to balance the overall budget – who says that trend won’t continue?

And this increase will affect three sets of people disproportionately:

  • Commuters in Baltimore will have to pay more to drive through the Harbor Tunnel or over the Key Bridge.
  • Tourists and north-south travelers along I-95 will be hit once they cross the Delaware line (or Susquehanna River.)
  • The Eastern Shore, as both main arteries crossing the Bay in Maryland will see a toll increase.

Obviously the third one concerns us, especially those who chose to live on the Eastern Shore yet commute to work in Annapolis, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. While the increase will be blunted for those who have EZPass it will still be a much larger monthly outlay. On the other hand, the drive between Baltimore and D.C. will remain as it is – even the new Inter-County Connector will be spared a toll increase. If you want to stay in the center of the state, well, these toll increases aren’t hurting you a bit (but you may reap the benefits.)

And as for the one reason I would support a modest toll increase (as opposed to 320%) – a third Chesapeake Bay span, but one closer to Salisbury? Well, apparently that’s not on the table as MTA is just trying to hold serve with fixing the stuff it has.

This will also serve to isolate the Eastern Shore further from the rest of the state, because who really wants to pay $8 to get across the bridge when almost everything else is readily available on the other side of the Bay? While it may not make or break a trip to Ocean City, it will adversely affect businesses in Queen Anne’s County, and a sampling of those business people will be stating their case at tomorrow’s presser.

Before the tolls take effect, though, there will be a series of public hearings beginning next month. Expect an earful from Eastern Shore residents who are tired of being considered the state’s outhouse when it comes to public policy decisions.