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Spans of the Cheasapeake Bay Bridge. (Flickr / Gary Hymes / CC-BY 2.0)

Sources: Tolls at Bay, Nice bridges could be reduced under plan

Tunnel tolls reportedly not part of proposed reductions

A proposal to reduce tolls could bring relief to motorists who use some of the state’s toll roads and bridges if approved by a state board Thursday morning.

The Maryland Transportation Authority Board is scheduled to vote on a proposal during a public meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. Thursday in a facility near the Bay Bridge. The details of the plan remain private until they are presented to the board for consideration.

“I think we’re going to address that tomorrow but I’ve talked  for a long time about the need for reduced taxes, tolls and fees in Maryland,” Hogan said when asked Wednesday for specifics of the plan.

LIVE UPDATES FROM THE MEETING THURSDAY: Proposed Md. toll reductions would be offset by $29m cut to Nice bridge replacement

Hogan promised a press conference sometime following the Thursday meeting, which is scheduled to end around 11:30 a.m.

Some details are beginning to emerge. Sources familiar with the developing proposal said ongoing discussions include possible toll reductions at a limited number of facilities including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is said to be a major component of the plan, and the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge. Both charge $6 per trip for two-axle vehicles.

Additionally, Republican legislators said he expects word of some relief for motorists, including residents along the southeast portion of Baltimore County, that frequently use the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and for residents in Harford and Cecile County who use the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge.

Two facilities that appear unlikely to see substantial reductions are the Harbor and Fort McHenry Tunnels, sources said.

Those tunnels make up more than 40 percent of the state’s toll revenue.

The cost of the reduction proposal is estimated to be about $53 million. Sources said that the costs would be offset by an up to $29 million reduction in capital spending for planning and development of the replacement for the Nice Bridge as well as some administrative reductions that possibly include a hiring freeze.

Hogan, when asked about which facilities might be affected, would only say: “We’ll find out (Thursday).”

Later, during a walking tour of Lexington Market, Hogan told a reporter that details of the toll reduction proposal had not been finalized.

Hogan’s tax pledge

The proposed reductions could provide Hogan with a way to say he has fulfilled his promise to reduce taxes while avoiding legislative approval of the measure.

Hogan, speaking to reporters in January, promised to take up the issue of toll reductions after the General Assembly session ended.

The legislature, earlier this year, anticipated Hogan might seek some toll reduction and added language that sought to restrict the governor to some degree.

Warren G. Deschenaux, director of the Office of Policy Analysis within the Department of Legislative Services, said lawmakers wanted to ensure that Hogan won’t take actions that would require him to offset toll reductions with money from the transportation trust fund. He said it should still be possible for the governor to make some reductions without running afoul of legislative intent.

“The issue is, what’s left,” Deschenaux said. “There is still a project that needs doing — the Nice Bridge. Are we putting that project in a hole that it might otherwise not be in?”

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was disappointed with the move to reduce tolls without providing information to the public or detailing the potential effects to state projects such as the replacement of the Nice Bridge in his home county.

Middleton said he had been assured that replacing the 74-year-old two-lane bridge that spans the Potomac River along Rt. 301 in southern Charles County to King County, Virginia, was a top priority.

“It’s very, very important that this project remains in line for replacement,” Middleton said, adding that he is concerned about possible downsizing of the project that was expected to be built by 2020.

Currently, the bridge handles about 18,000 vehicles daily. Traffic is expected to more than double by 2030.

The proposed replacement includes four lanes for traffic as well as designated paths for bicyclists and pedestrians. The bridge is slated to be built parallel to the current span. Cost of the replacement is projected to approach $1 billion.

Middleton said tolls on the bridge in his district are being used to offset the cost of building the Inter-County Connector in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

“Not a cent of it goes toward the replacement of the (Nice) bridge,” Middleton said.

The committee chairman sent a letter Wednesday to state Transportation Sec. Pete Rahn asking for a delay in the vote until the state can provide details on the effects of other projects.

Middleton also expressed concern in that letter over the lack of information provided to legislators and the public on what he called “a hastily conceived toll reduction package.

“This is very unusual and such haste and lack of transparency could lead to unintended consequences,” Middleton wrote, adding that he would like to see the transportation authority delay action until the public has a chance to comment on the state’s plan.

The authority has a specific process it must adhere to in terms of public hearings and comments on toll increases. Decisions to reduce tolls, however, have fewer public disclosure and comment requirements.

State officials posted notice of the public meeting and vote on the authority website late Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours before the meeting.

Other toll routes

Other legislators expressed optimism that toll reductions would be rolled out for facilities in their districts.

Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, R-Baltimore County, said he planned to speak to Hogan’s staff late Wednesday to ask for a reduction at the Key Bridge.

Salling and other legislators from Dundalk back a plan that would provide a discounted commuter plan for area residents who frequently use the commuter pass available at the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which connects Harford and Cecil counties along Route 40.

The plan for the Key Bridge was first proposed by former Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. and would have provided unlimited trips for a year for two-axle vehicles at a cost of between $20 and $40.

Sen. Wayne Norman, a Republican who represents the area around the Hatem Bridge, said he also hopes for a reduction of the $8 per trip toll.

“I’m not as concerned for the Bay Bridge as I am for the commuters in Harford and Cecil Counties,” Norman said.

Norman said he’d like to see a plan that would allow residents of the area pay $1 per trip “because we live here. We’re two communities separated by a bridge.”