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Toll increases are set for approval

The Maryland Transportation Authority board will vote Thursday on a toll hike plan that would raise rates later, and in some cases less, than the authority had planned.

The first phase of the toll increase would hit Nov. 1 for most drivers, a month later than first proposed. The second phase would come July 1, 2013.

Drivers would pay $4, then $6, to cross the Chesapeake Bay on the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge, according to the plan recommended Thursday by MdTA Acting Secretary Randolph P. Brown.

A preliminary proposal had called for the toll to climb to $5 and then $8. The bay crossing has cost $2.50 since 1975.

“We went out to 10 public hearings where we heard from about 4,000 people, and our board members took very seriously the comments they heard,” said authority spokeswoman Cheryl Sparks. “We made adjustments where we could, especially in those communities where people have no choice to use bridges every day.”

The Baltimore harbor crossings would still increase to $3 and then $4, doubling the cost of a one-way crossing in 2013.

Tolls on Interstate 95 toll plaza in Cecil County and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on Route 40 would climb to first $6 and then $8, as originally planned.

But, after fierce opposition to the first proposal in the northeastern corner of the state, the authority’s new plan would lessen the increase on commuters who use the Hatem Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville.

The authority had sought to transition those commuters to the E-ZPass system, and charge $36 a year in the first phase and $72 in the second for unlimited trips on the bridge. The revised proposal would waive the E-ZPass purchase and monthly fees for those drivers, and delay the implementation of the program until Oct. 1, 2012. The yearly cost of the E-ZPass would also be cut, to $10 to start and $20 in phase two.

E-ZPass users would also get a 10 percent discount at all toll facilities and, under the new plan, commuters would get a bigger discount — 75 percent starting Nov. 1 and 65 percent on July 1, 2013.

The plan would also eliminate the $1.50 monthly maintenance fee for E-ZPass users who used their transponder at least three times in the previous month. Separately, the cost of transponders will drop to $9 from $21.

The cost for drivers who go through toll booths without paying would increase to a 50 percent surcharge instead of the 25 percent surcharge in the first proposal.

Truckers’ tolls would top out at $30 for- one-way trips across the harbor, $45 on the bay bridge and $60 on I-95 and Route 40.

Toll hikes are necessary, according to the authority, to cover costs of maintaining and expanding the highways, tunnels and bridges. The MdTA anticipated the original plan would have brought in $251 million annually once fully implemented, in fiscal 2014. Sparks said the changes made would lower that figure by $30 million.

“We knew going in that we needed to have a little flexibility, not knowing when we went out to the public, what we were going to hear or where we were going to hear it,” she said.