Get ready to help pay for road construction elsewhere in Maryland. The tolls are going up at the state Transportation Authority's two Susquehanna River bridges – I-95 and Route 40 – and it's pretty clear the money will be used to subsidize projects like the InterCounty Connector that serves commuters in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Starting July 1, the cost to cross the Susquehanna using either the Route 40 Hatem bridge or the I-95 Tydings bridge will increase from $6 for a round trip to $8 for a round trip. Meanwhile, the toll to cross the Bay Bridge or the Route 301 bridge over the Potomac River also will be increasing, but that increase will be from $4 to $6 for a round trip. These are the cash rates, but E-ZPass rates will be going up by a similar amount and the E-ZPass system that was put into place for local commuters who had used the old sticker program to cross on Route 40 at a reduced rate will be doubled from $10 to $20 a year.
From a certain perspective, it makes good sense for the state to charge relatively high tolls, especially to cross the I-95 bridge for the sole purpose of collecting extra money from drivers who are from out of state. The practice is fairly common along the I-95 corridor in the northeastern U.S. The round trip car toll to cross the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River at the northern end of Manhattan is a hefty $13. The Maine Turnpike is $5 one way or $10 for a round trip. These highways, and other toll sections of I-95, are some of the most heavily traveled roadways in the U.S. and they need a lot of maintenance and repair as a result.
Still, it's hard to imagine a single car doing $13 worth of damage by crossing the George Washington Bridge twice. Clearly, money collected from travelers on I-95 is being used by Maryland and other states to subsidize projects elsewhere in those states. It's not necessarily a bad thing. If Marylanders headed to New England are going to take a hit from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Yankees should be subjected to comparable tolls when they decide to take a trip south of the Mason Dixon Line.
There should, however, be better protections for local users than what the latest few rounds of toll hikes have allowed. For many years, the bridge sticker system served people in Harford and Cecil counties very well. Local people could, for a few dollars, get stickers that allowed for unlimited crossings of the Susquehanna on the Route 40 bridge. It made sense. If you're truly making a local trip, there was no reason to use I-95.
Technically speaking, the sticker system at Route 40 has been rolled into the E-ZPass system, initially at the reasonable rate of $10 a year for unlimited crossings. That rate is being doubled effective July 1 to $20, which is something of an indication that the long-term plan is to phase it out.
Under the E-ZPass system, commuters who use a particular toll facility daily get a discounted local rate, which makes sense under the gouge-the-out-of-towners mentality that carries the day when it comes to tolls in this country. If the annual unlimited toll charge for the Route 40 E-ZPass plan is boosted incrementally, it won't be long before it is simply phased out in favor of a standard per-crossing commuter rate.
Whether this is what the Maryland Transportation Authority has in mind, or it is simply a conspiracy theory is of no consequence when it comes to one aspect of the change: tolls on local folks are going up substantially. Out-of-towners certainly will be paying more as well, but the increase that's being levied against local users has the potential to erect a barrier between adjacent and closely linked communities, especially if it continues to be increased.