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Occasional users of Maryland's toll facilities can expect to pay at least double the current rates and commuters as much as three times the current rates by 2013 under a proposal outlined Thursday by the professional staff of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

The higher tolls were part of a four-year package of $210 million in increases that would put some of the fattest sacred cows in Maryland's transportation system on the chopping block — increasing Bay Bridge tolls that have remained frozen since the 1970s and commuter rates that haven't been touched in 22 years.

The magnitude of the increases comes as no surprise to political insiders and people who closely track Maryland's transportation system, but their scale is likely to be a rude jolt to state residents who would have to dig deeper into their pockets to use the Baltimore Harbor crossings, the Bay Bridge, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and other toll facilities.

The numbers outlined by the staff are not binding on the board of the toll authority, but they represent the first specific ideas put on the table for this and the next round of increases.

The proposal outlined Thursday will now go to the full board, which plans to take three weeks to consider it before meeting in early June.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley, who chairs the board, said toll increases are unavoidable because of the need to pay bondholders for existing debts and the growing maintenance demands of aging bridges and roads.

"They are at an age where they need major rehabilitation and we need to pay for that rehabilitation," Swaim-Staley said.

But the state Senate's leading critic of the authority blasted the proposed increases as "outrageous" at a time when Maryland families are trying to cope with near-record gas prices.

"It just shows how out of touch the O'Malley administration is with the average working family," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from the upper Eastern Shore. "Do you think the average family income in Maryland has gone up 300 percent?"

Currently, Maryland's toll rates are regarded as relatively low by national standards. The $2.50 toll to cross the Bay Bridge, in particular, is much less than tolls on comparable spans in the New York and San Francisco areas.

Under the proposal outlined for the Finance Committee of the authority's board, the increases would come in two phases: one on Oct. 1 of this year and the other on July 1, 2013.

Occasional users of the harbor crossings — the Fort McHenry and Harbor tunnels and the Key Bridge — now pay $2 each way. Under the scenario outlined by the authority staff, they would pay $3 in October and $4 in mid-2013.

Commuters using those crossings, who have had their rates frozen since 1989, now enjoy a discount that lets them use the facilities for 80 cents a day for a round trip. Under the plan the board is expected to consider in June, that toll would rise to $1.80 for a round trip this year, followed by a jump to $2.80 two years later.

Unlike the past several times the authority has raised tolls, the Bay Bridge would not be spared. The current toll, $2.50 collected on eastbound trips only, is well less than the $2.80 charged for a round trip when the first span of the bridge opened in 1952. Under the plan, the toll would jump to $5 this year and $8 in 2013. Commuter rates would increase to $1.50 in the first phase and $2.80 in the second.

On the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway, the toll portion of Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore, the toll would rise from $5 to $6 later this year and to $8 in 2013. Commuters on the highway, where drivers pay northbound tolls only, would see an increase from 80 cents a trip to $1.80 next year and $2.80 two years later.

Users of the Hatem Bridge on U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River would pay the same basic cash rate as those on the parallel Kennedy Highway. But commuters on that bridge face the likely abolition of the current decal system that lets them cross for a full year at a flat $10 rate. Those users would have to use E-ZPass to get a discounted rate, which would go up to $36 a year plus a $1.50-a-month E-ZPass fee.

For several years now, the transportation authority and legislative analysts have warned General Assembly committees that sizable toll increases would be coming in 2011 and 2013. Among the factors driving the increases are the heavy debt burden the state shouldered to build the $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector in the Washington suburbs and the nearly $1 billion Express Toll Lanes on I-95 from Baltimore to White Marsh, as well as the growing maintenance cost of facilities that are in many cases more than 40 years old.

In a sense, the board chose to take its lumps at one time by directing the staff to prepare a four-year plan encompassing two rounds of increases. The first round, in October, is expected to raise roughly $88 million.

The details of the toll package outlined by the authority's staff are not graven in stone. Swaim-Staley noted that the package will be the subject of nine public hearings starting in June, which will give the board an opportunity to make adjustments in response to public concerns.

But Swaim-Staley said the overall size of the toll increase is relatively inflexible because of the consequences of failing to raise enough money to meet the system's obligations. She said a failure to act could result in a default, which would cost the authority its top-tier AA bond rating and escalate the cost of future borrowing.

Since its creation, the authority has been an independent entity that does not answer directly to the General Assembly and that can raise tolls without legislative review. Pipkin noted that he proposed legislation that would have curbed the authority's toll-raising powers but that it had been successfully opposed by the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Pipkin said the proposed increases show why the authority's independence "should be questioned." He urged citizens to call the governor's office and the authority itself to protest the possible toll hikes.

The senator suggested that much of the demand for money to pay bondholders comes from the costs of building the Intercounty Connector, a partially opened toll road in the Washington suburbs. The $2.6 billion highway was proposed as a toll road under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and continued in the same form by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Pipkin contended that users of the Bay Bridge and other facilities shouldn't have to pay more to cover the costs of that project. "If the ICC threw the finances out of whack, they ought to address it through the ICC," he said.

The ICC, conceived under Ehrlich as a road where tolls would vary by market demand and congestion levels, is not affected by the current set of increases. Authority officials said that its rates had only recently been adopted and that when it fully opens late this year or in early 2012 the tolls would fall within the rate originally set.

Michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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