The toll on Route 40 should have gone away

When the universal product code bridge stickers are no longer accepted for those of us who regularly cross the Susquehanna River on the Route 40 bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville, a sad day will have come.

When Maryland adopted the E-Zpass system a few years back, it wasn't hard to predict that certain other toll systems would come to an end. Within a few years one way or another of the inception of the E-Zpass system, the old dime tolls around Richmond, Va., became a thing of the past. In all honesty, I couldn't understand how a dime toll system that was staffed as heavily as Virginia's was could do anything but lose money. It seemed like you'd have to collect an awful lot more dimes to pay the people collecting them than those folks could actually collect.

There was also the whole nuisance factor of the Richmond toll situation: I remember sitting in a line of traffic for what seemed like an eternity in the summer heat (no air conditioning in the car I was driving, so that tells you how long ago it was) waiting to pay my dime. I remember vividly thinking how I'd have rather paid more for the system to have been more convenient.

The Route 40 sticker system really had something of a technological advantage over the Virginia system, not to mention most other stop-and-pay systems that were the order of the day until E-Zpass came along. Sure, they had those books of discount tickets for those folks who were regulars at the Ft. McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge, but you had to stop and allow those tickets to be torn out of a book. It was cheaper than stopping to pay a toll, but less convenient.

Crossing the Thomas Hatem Bridge between Havre de Grace and Perryville seemed like a wonder of modern technology and convenience compared to all the other toll systems. Just slow down to about 5 mph, a device would read your sticker and the toll gate would pop up. The system was not only easy, but also relatively cheap to operate as on most days, it was possible for a single toll collector to be in the cash lane, even as two decal lanes were open.

E-Zpass was clearly a substantial improvement. For years, I was skeptical of a system that supposedly was good for almost all toll facilities not only in Maryland but also in many other states. Then my wife, Anne, started commuting through the Baltimore tunnels and she quickly figured out how much money she could save by getting an E-Zpass. The convenience of having the pass for vacation trips was even more valuable. No more sitting in line waiting to pick up a ticket at the New Jersey Turnpike. Though backups were not eliminated, they seem to have become fewer and many seem related to folks in the cash lanes who have been reluctant, as I once was, to get an E-Zpass.

Given my high praise for the E-Zpass system, you might think I regard the change from a sticker system to E-Zpass at the Hatem Route 40 bridge to be a good thing. That's not the case, though. For a long time, I figured it would have made a lot of sense to eliminate the tolls on the Route 40 bridge, if for no other reason than the tolls at the bridge support an essentially redundant infrastructure that includes, of course, toll collectors, but also a 24/7 Maryland Toll Facilities police contingent plus administrative support staff.

The problem with just eliminating the toll on the Route 40 bridge, at least in my mind, and I think there was some public policy rationale behind this as well, was that it would result in a massive influx of toll dodgers swinging off I-95 over to Route 40 to get around the Perryville toll plaza on I-95. In my mind, the easy solution to that one was to just eliminate the Perryville Toll Plaza, which seemed devised to catch traffic headed through Maryland, as well as stopping Bay Bridge toll jumpers. This also has an easy solution: put a Delaware-style toll plaza between Elkton and North East, or, better yet, put a joint Delaware-Maryland facility at the state line, and charge both tolls at the same spot.

Under Gov. Bob Ehrlich, the idea of jacking up tolls became popular, though the Route 40 bridge sticker survived the assault; his successor, Gov. Martin O'Malley, has not been bashful about jacking up both fees and taxes, thus we're in a situation where crossing the Susquehanna for basics like shopping or visiting someone in the next town over will require payment of a more substantial toll than the relatively nominal bridge stickers.

Our public servants have done us wrong in going in the direction of charging tolls to get from what amounts to one side of a community to another. The old sticker system was a reasonable solution to the problem of potential toll jumpers clogging a roadway more suited to local traffic, but when local traffic is made to pay a full toll, that's a disservice to the community. Oh, sure, there's a discount in place, supposedly for the foreseeable future, but rest assured that discount will become smaller and smaller as years go by.

Unless, of course, the tolls at the Susquehanna bridges are eliminated entirely.

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