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Authority over Maryland tolls debated

ANNAPOLIS — Still bristling over recent toll hikes, a group of state lawmakers are calling for the General Assembly to reclaim the power to set tolls on Maryland tunnels, bridges and roads.

“That’s what people send us here to do,” said Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore. “If there’s going to be consideration of something that has such a far-reaching impact, as these toll increases did, the legislature should be able to do this.”

A bill — S.B. 62 — introduced Monday by Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County, would strip ultimate toll-setting power from the Maryland Transportation Authority and its board of gubernatorial appointees and instead require that any increases be voted into law by the legislature.

Pipkin said he will soon file similar legislation.

“That’s the way it used to be,” said Stone, a member of the General Assembly since 1963. “It used to be that we decided whether or not to raise the tolls.

“Toll increases are just like taxes. There’s never a good time to enact taxes, and this is probably the worst because of the economy and because of all the people we have out of work.”

While supporters of Stone’s effort say the General Assembly is more attuned to the needs and wants of the citizens and therefore should have the final say on tolls, opponents of the effort see the authority’s relative isolation from voters and election cycles as a benefit.

“It would be crippling if the General Assembly voted not to fund our [bond debt],” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. “These are fiscal decisions that have initially been made by the General Assembly in authorizing these projects.”

Even with power in the hands of the MdTA board, tolls lingered at too-low levels for too long, he said.

“You hold off on these things for the longest time until it smacks you in the face,” said Miller. “These tolls should have been raised under Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening. They should have been raised under Gov. [Robert L.] Ehrlich, they should have been raised under Gov. [Martin] O’Malley’s first term. And now the [debt] is coming due and they’ve got to be raised.”

The MdTA approved two rounds of toll hikes in September to raise $225 million more by 2014 to meet debt floated to maintain its facilities and pay for construction of the Inter-County Connector and toll lanes on Interstate 95 through Baltimore.

The first round of increases for most vehicles hit Nov. 1 and for truckers on Jan. 1. The second phase for all vehicles will come on July 1, 2013.

It costs $4 to cross over and under the Baltimore harbor for vehicles with two axles. A trip across the Chesapeake Bay will set drivers back $6, more than twice the $2.50 rate that stood since 1975.

Truckers’ tolls rose between $6 and $12.

The Maryland Motor Truck Association opposed the increases and supports Stone’s effort, said Louis Campion, the organization’s president.

“If a government agency requires additional monies, that case should be made by the agency to the elected legislative body, which has the responsibility to raise taxes and appropriate funds,” Campion said.

Thousands of people protested the toll hikes at public hearings held by MdTA across the state last summer, and trucking companies warned that the added costs would eat into their profits and potentially increase the costs of goods shipped on the state’s highways.

“They were sincere, they were on-message and that should have been to elected officials, not some appointed board,” said Pipkin.

The Department of Transportation and MdTA have not taken a position on the legislation, said department spokesman Jack Cahalan.

“MDOT and MDTA will review this proposed legislation, as it does all transportation-related legislation, discuss it with the sponsor and respond appropriately by developing a position paper once that review is completed,” Cahalan wrote in an email.