Just before Marylanders began the summer ritual of heading for the beach in large numbers came word that state transportation officials are considering hefty toll hikes.
Maryland’s toll roads and bridges are another part of our transportation infrastructure that has been underfunded and needs an infusion of new revenue to keep these vital arteries updated, safe and adequate to meet our growing needs of moving people and goods.
The increases tentatively approved Thursday by the Maryland Transportation Authority’s board should be examined carefully and may need to be revised before they take effect. But something needs to be done.
“A series of toll increases have been forecasted for the authority for many years,” said state Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, who chairs the authority’s board. “We’ve put them off for as long as we can.”
Indeed we have. Tolls on passenger vehicles in Maryland were last raised in 2003.
The transportation authority is now facing a trifecta of problems — maintenance on 50- and 70-year-old facilities, two costly new road projects (the Inter-County Connector in suburban Washington and adding eight miles of express lanes to Interstate 95 in the Baltimore area) plus skyrocketing debt to finance this work.
State budget analysts warned this year that the authority’s debt is expected to increase more than 10 times, from $245.7 million in fiscal 2007 to $2.7 billion in 2014. Toll increases are “expected” in 2014 and 2016 to pay for debt service and operating expenses, the analysts said.
The proposed toll hikes under consideration would come in two phases — on Oct. 1 this year and on July 1, 2013 — and they would be steep.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll for two-axle passenger vehicles, now $2.50, would double to $5 on Oct. 1 and jump to $8 in 2013.
The cost of Baltimore harbor crossings at the Francis Scott Key Bridge, Fort McHenry Tunnel and Baltimore Harbor Tunnel would rise from $2 to $3 in October, and to $4 in 2013.
The toll on I-95 in Perryville would rise from $5 to $6 in October and then to $8 in 2013. The commuter rate for the harbor crossings would climb from 40 cents to 90 cents in October, and then to $1.40 in 2013. Bay bridge and I-95 commuters would pay $2.80 per trip by July 2013.
Swaim-Staley said the plan would bring in $88 million more in the first two years, and $122 million in the two years after that.
The transportation authority plans to hold public hearings in June and July before taking a final vote on the increases. We are sure there will be a public outcry over toll hikes during tough economic times, and the board should carefully examine fiscally responsible ways to soften the blow.
But like many other fiscal issues facing our state, we have kicked the can down the road as far as we dare. It’s time to pay up.