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Toll hikes approved, truckers aren’t happy

The Maryland Transportation Authority approved sweeping toll hikes Thursday, a move that riled drivers and truckers who use the authority’s bridges, tunnels and highways.

The first increase will hit Nov. 1 for most drivers, and the second, July 1, 2013. The cost to cross the Baltimore harbor would double and a trip over the Chesapeake Bay will eventually set drivers back $6, more than twice what it costs now.

Senate Minority Whip E.J. Pipkin called the hikes “outrageous.”

“All the governor and this board did today was kill jobs,” said the Upper Eastern Shore Republican.

Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., D-Baltimore County, said the increase would be “crushing” to people living paycheck to paycheck, particularly those who pay tolls on their daily commutes

“On balance, it wasn’t a ‘One Maryland’ solution,” he said. “It was a ‘find the money solution and address as many squeaky wheels as we can’ solution.”

Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, who chairs the authority’s board, said the toll increases were inevitable.

“We had no choice but to raise tolls,” she said. “The choices were made and the bills due.”

The secretary said the authority needs to raise about $225 million more by 2014. The money will be used to cover costs of maintaining the existing tolled bridges, tunnels and roads and cover the construction costs of two new projects — the Inter-County Connector and express toll lanes on Interstate 95 through 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 I-95 project, expected to open in 2014, carries a price tag of about $1 billion.

Without the extra revenue, Swaim-Staley said the authority would default on its bond payments.

“Not making the bills is not an option,” she said.

Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said the authority put too much of the increase on the backs of truckers, who have already seen tolls increase three times in the past decade.

After the new increases are phased in, truck tolls will top out at $30 for one-way trips across the harbor, $45 over the bay and $60 in Northeast Maryland.

Campion said the hikes will especially hurt truckers who carry goods to and from the Port of Baltimore.

“Diversion is not really an option to access the port,” he said. “They simply don’t have any alternatives. Ultimately, over time, the costs of goods will go up.”

The authority’s board approved the toll hike plan on a voice vote.

Drivers will pay $4 starting Nov. 1, then $6 in 2013, to cross the Chesapeake Bay on the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge.

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 heard it was too much, too soon,” Swaim-Staley said.

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

Tolls on I-95 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 lessened 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 plan waives the E-ZPass purchase and monthly fees for those drivers, and delays 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 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 drops 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 drops to $9 from $21.

The cost for drivers who go through toll booths without paying will climb to a 50 percent surcharge instead of the 25 percent surcharge first proposed.