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The toll plaza at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.(File photo)

Legislators call hearing to review toll-reduction plan

State transportation officials have been called to Annapolis to brief the Senate’s two fiscal committees on a plan to roll back tolls and fees for Maryland motorists.

The Senate Finance and Budget and Taxation committees sent a letter Tuesday requesting the hearing nearly two weeks after the Maryland Transportation Authority Board approved a $54 million plan to reduce tolls and fees to motorists. Legislators have expressed concerns about a lack of public transparency related to the plan and fears that previously planned infrastructure projects might be delayed or eliminated as a result of the reductions.

Sen. Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he is concerned about a lack of information provided to legislators prior to the decision and how the reductions will affect the replacement of the Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridg,e which connects his county to Virginia along Rt. 301.

“A lot of this has to do with our capital budget program and our debt service,” Middleton said of the requested briefing.

Middleton said the cuts likely mean the death of a project to replace the Nice Bridge.

“There was a plan,” Middleton said. “To say that this project wasn’t on the books — it is on the books. It was on the books, anyway.”

But the call for a briefing caught some Republicans by surprise and left them questioning the need for such a meeting at all.

“I don’t recall this generating a request for a meeting in 2011 when Governor O’Malley was calling for a rise in tolls,” said Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., R-Upper Eastern Shore and a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Hershey, who is also the Senate minority whip, said he learned of the meeting Tuesday afternoon following a call from a reporter.

Hershey stopped short of saying politics was driving the issue, but he noted that Democratic legislators who had argued that the authority board was acting independently when  it increased tolls were now complaining when that same board voted to reduce tolls and fees.

Two weeks ago, the board voted to approve a plan to reduce tolls at bridges, tunnels and state toll roads statewide. The plan gave the biggest discounts to users of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge as well as users of the E-ZPass electronic payment system.

Part of the plan includes the elimination of the $1.50 monthly charge for using the E-ZPass system for state residents who have accounts registered in Maryland rather than other states. Out-of-state residents would still pay the fee if they do not use a Maryland toll facility at least three times per month. That disparity in charges has raised questions that the plan could run afoul of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery and vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said the briefing is to help legislators understand the details of the plan and how it affects other proposed projects.

“The governor wants to tell people that he’s lowering tolls and people are giving less money to government, but there’s no free lunch,” Madaleno said. “I think people are going to want to know what it means for other projects.”