Toll call: Politicians with backbone needed
Tolls on Maryland bridges and roads could rise sharply this winter, thanks to a lack of courage by prior state leaders.
That same profile in political avoidance remains intact in Annapolis, making it likely that a more modest increase will be approved by the Maryland Transportation Authority.
Once again, Maryland's transportation system will scramble to subsist on a sharply restricted revenue diet, even as its bridges and toll roads age and deteriorate.
No one should be surprised by this development.
Politicians have dodged the really tough budget calls in recent decades if it involves raising revenue. Instead, they've pandered to the public for fear of losing votes. That helps them stay in office but at a steep cost as Maryland drops into a fiscal sinkhole.
The latest victim is the state's toll authority, which knows it needs giant fee increases to modernize and upgrade its antiquated facilities.
How old are these structures?
The terrifying Nice Bridge in Charles County spanning the Potomac River connects U.S. 301 in Southern Maryland to Virginia. It was built 71 years ago. So was the Hatem Bridge, part of U.S. 40 as it crosses the Susquehanna River. The president back then was Franklin Roosevelt.
The original span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is nearly 60 years old; the parallel span is almost 40 years old.
The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel celebrates its 55th birthday next year. The Kennedy I-95 Expressway 50 miles of concrete from Baltimore to the Delaware line is closing in on the half-century mark. The Francis Scott Key Bridge, the last connecting piece of the Baltimore Beltway, opened 34 years ago.
The baby of the bunch, the Fort McHenry Tunnel beneath Baltimore's harbor the world's only eight-span vehicle tunnel is already 26 years old.
If these structures were a professional basketball team, the media would call them the geriatric bunch.
At the top of the repair list is a $100 million reconstruction of underwater foundations on the two Susquehanna River crossings (the Tydings and Hatem bridges).
The most expensive near-term project is replacing the narrow, steep Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland (named for the last one-term Republican governor prior to Bob Ehrlich's victory in 2002). The cost: somewhere north of $1 billion.
As for building a third Chesapeake Bay crossing, state officials studiously avoid talking about that super-expensive project though traffic on the parallel spans is expected to jump 40 percent (an additional 10 million trips) in less than 15 years.
Even with an enormous backlog of repair, renovation and replacement needs, state leaders have routinely ducked when it came to raising fees.
As a result, Maryland has some of the lowest tolls in the U.S. We're stuck in a time warp. Indeed, it's a reverse time warp: The fee to cross and then re-cross the Bay Bridge costs less today ($2.50) than it did in 1952, when it first opened to traffic ($2.80).
The millions of drivers who pass through Maryland on our toll bridges and roads must love us especially compared with the rip-off tolls encountered in Delaware and New Jersey.
But let's face facts: Our politicians have spoiled us. Crossing the Chesapeake is ridiculously cheap. The toll for the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel hasn't changed in 37 years.
Now, though, the days of underpriced tolls are coming to an end, regardless of the timidity of political leaders. That's because the Maryland Transportation Authority has a fiduciary responsibility to bondholders it cannot avoid. Without adequate toll revenue, the authority cannot maintain the required bond coverage.
Hefty hikes will be required to avoid breaking the terms of bond agreements, which are binding contracts.
As the Department of Legislative Services reported earlier this year, the transportation authority's legal duty to bondholders means it must "raise [toll] revenues as necessary despite public or political opposition."
The really bad news, according to DLS, is that the proposed increases will "only sustain existing operations." They won't begin to pay for improvements such as that billion-dollar replacement bridge over the Potomac River in Southern Maryland.
Until recently, cash from toll roads and bridges was sufficient to pay most of the authority's expenses. But the Ehrlich administration decided to tap the authority's under-used bond capacity to pay for two mega-projects the Intercounty Connector and a widening of I-95 north of Baltimore to accommodate a toll road.
The ICC is likely to prove a wise investment over time, but the new pay-to-drive portion of I-95 now delayed until 2014 could become the "toll lanes to nowhere." Few will use them unless there's a backup on the free lanes.
Those two projects doubled the authority's debt service in five years to $53 million. By fiscal 2014, debt service will triple to $164 million.
The protests over higher tolls from the public and Republicans eager to whip up an emotional frenzy will be loud. It already is dampening enthusiasm for a gas tax increase this fall to generate enough dollars to start fixing state and local roads in need of serious repair.
The situation calls for political leaders with backbone who are willing to level with the public and then do what's needed to secure Maryland's future. Will that happen? History tells us it's a long shot at best.
Barry Rascovar is a State House columnist and communications consultant. His email address is email@example.com.