- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Michelle Keefer was not happy with the four-minute video that kicked off Wednesday’s public hearing regarding proposed statewide toll increases that would nearly triple the cost to cross the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge by summer 2013.
The clip detailed why the Maryland Transportation Authority needed to substantially increase tolls at its seven aging facilities to maintain them and pay down the debt on two recent, major projects and emphasized that the authority has spent its revenue wisely.
“When I watched the film, I almost felt like you were trying to make me feel guilty for wanting to keep my money in my own pocket,” Keefer said to Department of Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley and members of the authority’s board of directors.
But Keefer was far from the only person who spoke during the public hearing, held at Dr. Thomas L. Higdon Elementary School in Newburg, who was upset with the proposal, which would raise the standard Nice Bridge toll from its current $3 rate to $5 in October and $8 in July 2013. Commuters would go from paying 60 cents today to $1.50 in October and $2.80 in July 2013.
Neither the standard nor commuter rates have been increased at any state toll facility, including the Nice Bridge, since 2003 and 1985, respectively.
Actually, none of the roughly 20 people who testified at the hearing supported the proposal, though several said it would go down smoother if paired with a new or expanded Nice Bridge, which was built in 1940.
“I haven’t seen a whole lot of changes to that bridge since I’ve been here,” said Petra Small of Indian Head. “I have no problems paying that toll, whatever you decide, if you use it to fix that bridge.”
But most believed the increased tolls would be used primarily to pay down debt on the $2.6 billion, 18.8-mile Intercounty Connector, which runs between Gaithersburg and Laurel.
“I’m not sure why I’m being asked to pay for a $2.6 billion boondoggle that I never wanted,” said Chris Cherest of La Plata.
Having heard that complaint frequently around the state, Swaim-Staley did her best to dispel the notion early on, before testimony began.
“I know it’s never a good time to raise tolls,” she said.
Tolls at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge would also go up, from $2.50 to $5 in October and $8 in July 2013.
Two-axle vehicles paid 63 percent of the statewide tolls in 2010.
The authority has stated the toll increases will go toward maintaining its facilities and paying down debt on the ICC “and the $1 billion express toll lanes installed along Interstate-95 in northeast Baltimore.”
Funded almost entirely by toll revenue, the authority did receive nearly $450 million in state funding, including $180 million from the Transportation Trust Fund, to help construct the ICC.
About 3.4 million people annually cross the Nice bridge, which generated $10 million in tolls last year, 3 percent of the authority’s 2010 revenue and the second-lowest total in the state. Only the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which crosses the Susquehanna River, made less, about 1 percent of the authority’s 2010 revenue.
The hearing started at 6 p.m., too early for many Southern Marylanders still on the way home from work, said Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary’s, Charles).
“The economy is bad. Everyone is already hurting,” Wood said. “We cannot triple the rates like you’re asking.”
Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) toed a line between calling the toll increases necessary and unreasonable. He said the state has to meet its debt obligations and keep its bridges and tunnels safe, but also reminded the authority that the legislature was willing to block the increases if it deemed them too high.
“I hope you will understand how sensitive these times are,” Middleton added.
The economic impact of the proposal would be disastrous, said Nick Loffer, field director for the Maryland chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group.
“You’re going to hurt small businesses and too many struggling businesses and it’s just unthinkable to do that,” he said.
During the hearing, Loffer suggested allowing companies to bid for the chance to print coupons on the back of toll receipts as an alternative to the proposal. Another option is selling advertising or naming rights at toll plazas, he said afterward.
“If [the proposal] was reasonable and people knew it was going to stay in the area and fix the bridges, I don’t think you’d see this” level of opposition, Loffer added.
The economic impact would not be limited to Maryland, said Patrick and Deborah Grinder, who live and own a business in King George, Va., and drove over the Nice Bridge to testify out of fear that a toll increase might drive them into bankruptcy.
Marylanders make up a hearty percentage of the Grinders’ clientele, and a frequent complaint they hear is the current $3 it costs to cross over into Virginia. Already struggling, “we’ll probably go under” if the current proposal passed, Patrick said.
“I run into people all the time that haven’t worked in months,” he added. “We’re asking you to not make us one of them.”
Regina Mundi of La Plata owns truck stops near the bridge in Maryland and Virginia and testified that truck drivers already do whatever they can to avoid crossing into Maryland because of high tolls.
If tolls are increased, “you’re preparing yourself for a statewide sit-out” of truckers, she said.
Several residents who frequently cross the bridge towing a camper or horse trailer complained that they would eventually be asked to pay $48 to cross the bridge instead of the current $15 for five-axle vehicles or a two-axle truck towing a three-axle trailer.
One of them, Irv Peusch of Newburg, got a round of applause with his statement: “Ya’ll got to get together here and get your heads out of your butt,” he said.
Unable to attend Tuesday’s public hearing at Dundalk Middle School, Joseph Snyder drove from Baltimore to testify and sided with the locals.
“I agree with them. I think there’re tolls should be done away with,” Snyder said. “You make enough money up in Baltimore.”
The deadline to submit comments is 5 p.m. Aug. 1. The authority’s board of directors will take final action on the proposal later in the summer.
To submit comments or view a complete list of the proposed toll increases, go to www.mdta.maryland.gov.