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MDTA’s toll-reduction plan another stop on road to cashless system

Maryland Department of Transportation Deputy Sec. James F. Ports Jr. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Maryland Transportation Authority Executive Director Jim Ports. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Some Maryland motorists moved one step closer to lower tolls after the Maryland Transportation Authority board cleared the way for a series of public hearings that could lead to changes in how fees are charged.

The vote Thursday opens the door to a public comment period on lower tolls that would be rolled out over the course of 2020. The change, if adopted later this year, could provide additional payment options that would move the state closer to a cashless tolling operation, according to Jim Ports, executive director of the authority.

“The goal is, the public has asked for decades why they have to stop at toll booths,” said Ports. “All it does is slow down traffic and backs up traffic. We’re trying to accommodate that. The cashless toll is the best way to go.”

“It’s best to have cashless tolls but to do that, you have to have options,” said Ports.

Under that proposal announced last week by Gov. Larry Hogan, some motorists will see reductions in tolls totaling $28 million over five years. The reductions come from a creation of new vehicle classifications, discounts for early payment of video tolls, and a new pay-by-plate system.

Ports said the reduction can be easily absorbed by the authority but said more three- and four-wheel vehicle operators who current try to avoid the tolls might be incentivized to change their travel habits.

“We’re trying to be  friendly to the public and sometimes to do that you’re going to have a potential loss,” said Ports. “But as you know, when we reduced the tolls in 2015 we ended up with more revenue because more people used it.”

The proposal would create more targeted classifications, including new rates for motorcycles and three-wheeled vehicles such as auto-cycles. Tolls would also be lowered for so-called three-axle light vehicles — passenger cars, sports utility vehicles, campers and tow-trucks that are pulling one-axle trailers or towing a car. Those vehicles would be separate from heavier three-axle vehicles, including buses and construction equipment.

Passenger vehicles pulling larger two-axle trailers would fall into a category separate from commercial hauling vehicles.

Transportation authority officials said new technology will allow the toll facilities to identify vehicles based on profile photographs and axle counts that will be used to determine which toll rate applies.

Discounts on tolls for the new classifications, which could go into effect in September 2020, will range from 17 to 50 percent based on the vehicle type.

Customers using E-ZPass, which requires a prepaid balance that is replenished by debit or credit card payments, will pay the lowest tolls.

For example, under the proposal, a motorcycle traveling through the Fort McHenry Tunnel will pay $2 per trip — a 50 cent reduction of the current cash price. That payment would drop to $1.50 for E-ZPass customers.

Video toll customers — motorists who have no E-ZPass account and have the state bill by mail for tolls — will continue to pay $3 per trip.

Under a pay-by-plate tolling plan, motorists create an account using the license plate of their vehicle linked to a credit or debit card. Payments are charged the same as the cash rate and charged as the vehicle uses the tunnel or other toll facility.

Pay-by-invoice customers who go online and pay before an invoice is mailed will pay a reduced toll — $2.55 per trip or 15 percent less than the $3 toll for the customer who waits to pay when the invoice is mailed.

The changes appear to be one more step toward a cashless tolling system in Maryland.

Facilities at the Francis Scott Key and Thomas J. Hatem Memorial bridges will go cashless this fall with motorists paying via E-ZPass or video tolling.

The state Department of Transportation estimates that 90 percent of motorists using the Hatem bridge and 80 percent of those crossing the Patapsco on the Key bridge already pay using one of those two systems.

“We have to evaluate this first,” Ports said of the Hatem and Key operations. “We believe it will be widely accepted because of the highway speeds and customers asking for that. We’ll learn some of the challenges of the payment systems we’re trying to put in place so as we learn we’ll make a decision about whether we move to (cashless tolls) or not.”

Ports said the agency is improving its technology infrastructure and is open to the possibility of other payment options, including paying tolls by smartphone applications and digital license plates.

“We’re trying to get as customer-friendly as possible,” said Ports. “It’s a little early in the process because the vendors have to work with their systems and put all that in place but … all these things are coming into place to make these systems operable.”

Hearings will be held around the state in the nine jurisdictions where toll facilities are located between Sept. 3 and 19. During that time the public will have the opportunity to submit written comments until Oct. 3. A second 10 day public comment period opens up in early November upon the release of a final recommendation.

The board is expected to vote on a final plan on Nov. 21.




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