By DYLAN WAUGH
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 29, 2009)—Just hours after approving a $1.50 monthly service fee and increases to commercial truck tolls, Maryland Transportation Authority officials defended their $60 million "cost recovery program" in front of the Maryland Senate Finance Committee Thursday.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Caroline, questioned the swiftness—only 24 days passed between the proposal's announcement Jan. 5, and Thursday's approval of the actions.
"Twenty four days for a $60 million increase is very aggressive," he said.
Pipkin criticized the Transportation Authority's decision to conduct a mostly web-based feedback program instead of holding face-to-face meetings. He said concerned E-ZPass customers were not given a true chance to voice their opinions.
Earlier in his presentation Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari touched on the issue.
"We can certainly build in better opportunities for public comments in the future," he said.
The Maryland Transportation Authority's board voted in favor of several increases Thursday morning.
The moves were necessary due to the national economic downturn, declining traffic and heavy debts due partly to the inter-county connector project and improvements on Interstate 95, Porcari said.
The increases "were done with great reluctance," he said. Starting July 1, E-ZPass users will be charged $1.50 a month for each account. New and replacement E-ZPass units will cost $21 and customers purchasing commuter plans will have 45 days to use them instead of 60.
Driving through an E-ZPass lane without a transponder for the first time will cost $3 and repeated violations will cost $25, up from $15.
Vehicles with three or more axles—namely commercial trucks—will face $3-$13 increases at various Maryland bridges and toll facilities. The truck increases go into effect May 1.
Raising truck tolls would better reflect the amount of wear and tear commercial vehicles inflict on Maryland roads, said Ronald L. Freeland, executive secretary of the Transportation Authority.
Commercial vehicles are responsible for approximately 36 percent of the agency's operating and maintenance costs while only producing 32 percent of its revenue, he said.
Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman, R-Carroll, questioned whether customers were going to purchase E-ZPass units in other states to avoid Maryland's fees.
Transportation Authority officials acknowledged that was a possibility, but were not overly concerned.
Citing the economic downturn and declining travel, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, recognized the agency's difficult position.
"You're in between a rock and a hard place," she said.
Pipkin said the increased fees were counter to the state's push for people to use E-ZPass.
"People have done what you asked them to do," he said, "and now you hit them with an $18 (a year) fee?"
Capital News Service contributed to this report.
LETTER: Proposed Road Toll Increases Are Unfair, Jan. 29, 2009