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

Md. board approves $54M in toll reductions

Maryland motorists will soon pay less to use Maryland’s toll roads and bridges under a plan approved Thursday by the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Pete K. Rahn, left, secretary for the Department of Transportation, and Gov. Larry Hogan appear at a news conference to announce that tolls will be lowered at locations throughout the state, including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll plaza. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Pete K. Rahn, left, secretary for the Department of Transportation, and Gov. Larry Hogan appear at a news conference to announce that tolls will be lowered at locations throughout the state, including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll plaza. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Gov. Larry Hogan said the statewide toll reductions totaling $54 million annually will benefit 2 million motorists and is the fulfillment of a campaign promise.

“Our toll tax rollback will ease the squeeze and make travel less expensive for struggling Marylanders,” Hogan said during a news conference alongside the toll facility at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

The biggest of the approved reductions will affect those who use the iconic bay crossing. Starting July 1, the current $6 round-trip cost will be reduced to $4  or $2.50 for E-ZPass customers. Commuter plan users will pay $1.40.

The governor called the changes “a tax cut” and said while he will look for additional ways to cut taxes and fees, the effort on tolls is likely complete.

“This is the first time in 50 years they’ve ever been lowered,” Hogan said. “It’s more than a quarter-billion-dollar reduction in taxes. I think we’re probably done for a while, at least on this.”

Not all state officials praised the reductions.

“Again, it’s very base politics. It’s been going on since the beginning of time,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. “Roman politicians used to throw coins to the plebeians, the citizens, to gain public favor. It’s good politics but very bad fiscal policy.”

Miller expressed concern about the adverse effects of the cuts.

“You don’t put tolls in place lightly,” he said. “It now costs as much to maintain the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as it did to build them in the first place.”

“It sets us backwards in terms of our transportation needs, in terms of economic development needs, our quality of life needs,” he said.

The changes approved by the board will benefit most motorists but those who use E-ZPass will see the biggest reductions.

Maryland residents using the electronic toll payment device who have an account through the state will see the $1.50 per month fee eliminated. Out of state residents with Maryland E-ZPass accounts will also see the fee eliminated if they use state toll facilities at least three times in a month.

Transportation officials said the fee was one of the most complained about by motorists and caused some to avoid the fee by signing up for accounts in other participating states.

Those who use the electronic toll payment device at the Harbor and Fort McHenry Tunnels and Francis Scott Key Bridge, John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, Thomas J. Hatem and Harry W. Nice Bridges will all see a 24 percent reduction in the current tolls, starting July 1.

On the Inter-County Connector, per-mile rates will decrease by 3 cents per mile. A peak period trip will cost $3.86 under the reduced tolls.

Three- and four-axle truck tolls on the Hatem bridge will decrease by 30 percent for electronic toll payers.

The last of the changes, which goes into effect January 1, reduces the toll per axle for three- to six-axle trucks to $2 per axle for trucks that use the Childs Street and I-695 turnaround exits at the Harbor Tunnel and Key Bridge respectively.

To pay for the toll cuts, the board approved a number of cost reductions, including:

  • $29 million from the replacement of the Harry W. Nice Bridge. Officials said most of that will come from money saved from lower-than-projected costs for right of way acquisition.
  • $10.7 million from the elimination of vacant positions, including 10 toll collecting positions, and a hiring freeze that will result in the elimination of an expected police class. There are seven vacancies within the transportation police and that number is expected to grow to 19 in a year.
  • 11 positions eliminated through a voluntary separation program announced by former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley in January.

Supporters of the Nice Bridge, including Miller and Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County, said the changes will effectively kill any chance of replacing the 74-year-old structure.

The governor rejected critics, including those in the legislature, who said the reductions will hurt state efforts to maintain the toll roads and bridges and to pay for a nearly $1 billion replacement of the Harry W. Nice Bridge connecting Charles County to Virginia.

“Quite frankly I don’t really care what those legislators or their analysts think. It sounds like a lot of whining by people who want to protect the status quo and continue raise taxes and increase fees and tolls and we just have a difference in opinion,” Hogan said.