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Drivers decry plan for Maryland toll increases at 7th public hearing

More than 100 angry, toll-paying drivers decried a plan to raise the cost of traveling on some state roads, highways and tunnels twice in the next two years at Dundalk Middle School on Tuesday night.

“It’s an absurdity to make people pay this,” said Kathleen Niedzwick as she waited for the seventh hearing on the toll hike proposal.

The retiree from Rosedale said she already tries to avoid the state toll booths, but sometimes pays to cross the Baltimore harbor.

“I won’t go to the Eastern Shore anymore,” she said.

Even people who don’t drive came out to stake their positions on the proposal.

“People can barely live what they have now,” said retiree Gary Jones, of Dundalk, who added that he can’t afford to drive anymore.

The Maryland Transportation Authority’s plan would even out toll rates across the state, give E-Zpass users a 10 percent discount and raise rates for commuters and truckers. Most rate hikes would come in two phases, on Oct. 1 this year and in July 2013.

The plan would raise $77 million more in the coming fiscal year, $119 million the year after, and $251 million in fiscal 2014, when the toll hikes would be fully implemented, according to authority projections

“Obviously it is never a good time to make a toll increase,” said Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.

But, she and other state officials say the money is needed to cover mounting maintenance costs on the state’s toll bridges, tunnels and highways and pay down billions in bond payments for projects now under construction.

The MdTA board gave the plan preliminary approval this month and is expected to approve a final rate hike plan late in the summer after considering public input.

Doug Burton said he already pays a $3,100 E-Zpass bill every month for his two tanker trucks to carry molasses for a yeast company in Baltimore.

“They’re talking about taking that to $6,200 a month for the same work? Tolls are going to overshadow fuel pretty soon,” he said.

The first toll hikes for trucks and vehicles with three or more axles would be delayed until January, but the plan would also lower discounts for frequent commercial toll users.

Truck tolls would top out at $60 for a round trip. The highest is now $38 on I-95.

“I can’t possibly eat that sort of thing,” said Burton. “I have to pass it off on the customer, and they have to pass it on to the consumer. So the price of bread is going to go up.”

The toll proposal has also been rebuked by some state lawmakers.

Sen. Norman Stone, D-Baltimore County, called the increases “outrageous” to kick off the Tuesday meeting.

Del. Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore and Harford, said Tuesday he has filed a bill to be considered by the General Assembly this fall that would give the legislature and governor veto power over the toll hikes.

“The residents of Maryland, in order to survive, need these bridges and tunnels,” McDonough said. “It’s not just going to be out-of-state people paying these tolls.”

Top Republicans in the Senate have been vocal in their opposition to the plan as well. Senate Minority Leader Nancy Jacobs, R-Cecil in Harford, has organized grassroots opposition to the plan through Facebook.

The Interstate 95 toll in Perryville and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on Route 40 would climb from $5 to $6, then $8 for cars and passenger vehicles with two axles.

The William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge over the Chesapeake Bay, where the toll has been $2.50 since 1975, would rise to $5, then $8.

Baltimore harbor crossings, which are collected in both directions 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 state last raised passenger vehicle tolls on the Baltimore harbor crossings, I-95 and the Hatem bridge in 2003.

Commuter rates would rise to the equivalent of $2.80 for a round trip at all toll locations.