Hearing draws critics of tolls
Transportation secretary says rates could be adjusted
A small group of critics, angered by the expensive tolls proposed for the Intercounty Connector, attended a public hearing Wednesday in Beltsville and accused Maryland Transportation Authority officials of lying.
"People are shocked, but they can't make it any cheaper because they have to pay off the bonds," said Prince George's County Councilman Thomas Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel, a longtime opponent of the ICC. "Now the lies are coming home to roost."
Dernoga was one of about 10 opponents who attended a hearing on the proposed tolls as much as 35 cents per mile during peak hours that state officials are mulling for the 18.8-mile, six-lane ICC, which will connect Laurel and Gaithersburg.
Construction on the $2.5 billion road started construction earlier this year after decades of local opposition and court battles. A section of the road is scheduled to open next fall. The full road is expected be ready in late 2011.
To pay back the billions borrowed for construction, state officials say they would need to charge rush-hour drivers 35 cents for each mile they drive on the road. The rate would be 25 cents for off-peak hours, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., as well as on weekends and holidays.
Under the proposed toll structure, drivers would have to have an EZ Pass, for which they would pay a surcharge, to travel the road and would face a minimum $1.05 toll to ride any portion. Larger trucks and vehicles with trailers would pay higher rates.
The tolls are causing sticker shock for many, who say that a daily commuter could pay about $3,000 per year in tolls.
Dernoga said state leaders are catering to commuters in Howard and Montgomery counties who do not want to use the Capital Beltway.
"People are already calling this the Prince George's Bypass," Dernoga told members of the transportation authority's board. "This is so people in their Lexuses can cut across the Intercounty Connector while going to work. That's what it's for."
Opponents noted that the toll rates are about 10 cents higher than what officials were telling leaders a few years ago.
"Your toll rates drove all this disinformation," said Greg Smith of Mount Rainier, whose nonprofit group, Community Research Inc., has opposed the road for environmental reasons. "This is a classic bait-and-switch."
Prince George's officials are asking the state to give a discount to residents living near the highway.
Transportation officials did not address the opponents at the hearing but blamed inflation for the altered toll rates.
"Those were in 2003," said Transportation Secretary Beverly K. Swaim-Staley during a break, although she said the proposed tolls still will keep cars from clogging nearby roads.
The authority is scheduled to approve the toll rates Dec. 17.