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Two toll hikes could be in Md. drivers’ future

Maryland transportation officials are considering a raft of toll hikes statewide that would bring in $210 million over the next four years and more than triple the cost for cars traveling over the Chesapeake Bay bridge.

The timing and amount of the toll increases have not been finalized, but the needs to raise its rates to keep pace with maintenance of its bridges, tunnels and highways, and pay down the debt supporting the construction of two major highway projects underway.

“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.”

Staffers presented the suggested toll increases to the board Thursday. Swaim-Staley said the authority plans to vote on a preliminary plan next month, hold a series of public meetings this summer to gain input and vote on a final version in time to make the first round of rate increases October 1. A second phase would go into effect July 1, 2013.

Under the plan, tolls for two-axle passenger vehicles on the William Preston Lane Memorial Bridge over the bay would double in October to $5, and climb 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 Interstate 95 in Perryville would rise from $5 to $6 in October, and then to $8 in 2013.

Commuter rates would also rise. The charge 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.

Tolls on passenger vehicles were last raised in 2003.

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 increase is to both to pay for the existing infrastructure that we have, and the work we need to do to on the 50- to 70-year old facilities, as well as to pay for the new projects,” she said, referring to the Inter-County Connector in suburban Washington and widening of I-95 in Baltimore.

Nearly half of the ICC’s $2.6 billion cost falls on MdTA, which will cover its $1.23 billion in bonds with future toll revenues.

The authority slashed the Baltimore toll lanes project a year ago, reducing the length of the express lanes and number of interchanges to bring the cost of the project down to $900 million from $1.4 billion. The eight-mile express lanes from White Marsh Boulevard to Interstate 895 are expected to open in 2014.

State budget analysts wrote this year the authority’s debt is expected to increase more than 10 times, from $245.7 million in fiscal 2007 to $2.7 billion in fiscal 2014, and that toll increases in 2014 and 2016 are “expected” to pay for debt service and operational expenses.

Swaim-Staley said future toll increases will largely depend on how much traffic travels through the toll booths, but added: “over the long term, we’re going to need gradual, periodic increases on a fairly regular basis.”