Politics

Toll Roads, Bridges Targeted for Major Fare Hikes

Shown here is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Shown here is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  (Maryland Transportation Authority)

Travelers and commuters feeling the pain at the pump should prepare for another financial hit -- at the tolls. 

As the summer travel season gets under way, several states are considering or have already approved steep hikes in the fees drivers pay to cross bridges, highways and tunnels. 

Particularly in the mid-Atlantic region, local transportation boards scrambling to find more money for maintenance and other projects are decisively turning to toll booths to pay the way. 

And the changes will not be gradual. 

In Maryland, where some of the most sweeping increases have been proposed, the Maryland Transportation Authority earlier this month unveiled its plan to raise rates at seven of its eight facilities. 

The proposal would affect several Baltimore-area roads. But the proposal has really riled residents on the Eastern Shore, where the state plans to jack up the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll from $2.50 to $8 by summer 2013. That bridge is the state's only central route across the bay and links the D.C. and Baltimore regions to the popular summer hangout of Ocean City -- Maryland's more family-friendly version of the Jersey shore

Melanie Pursel, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, suggested a toll increase is probably overdue but expressed concern that such a steep hike could hurt business. 

"What it is is the amount and the rate of increase in such a short period of time ... not only for tourism, but just overall commerce," Pursel told FoxNews.com. 

She said families planning a week in Ocean City probably won't nix their vacation over a bridge fee. As for day trippers, "They might think twice about it when it's $8." 

But state officials, who are holding a series of tense hearings on the plan, say the money is needed to pay for maintenance and other highway projects in the Baltimore/D.C. regions. The proposal is projected to bring in $77 million the first fiscal year -- money that over time would go to fixing up major bridges, highways and tunnels. 

"The MDTA board has scaled back projects and reduced expenses to delay an increase in tolls a long as possible," board member Louise Hoblitzell said in a written statement. "But we have a fiscal responsibility, let alone a legal obligation, to pay our bills." 

Under the Maryland proposal, rates at several facilities would rise on Oct. 1 and rise again in July 2013. For travelers on Interstate-95, the major thruway on the eastern seaboard, this means eventually paying $8 instead of $5 for the highway and $4 instead of $2 for the Baltimore tunnel by 2013. Commuters are eligible for significantly discounted rates, though those would also rise under the plan. 

AAA spokesman Lon Anderson, who also sits on Maryland's transportation funding commission, expressed concern about toll hikes throughout the region, not just in Maryland. He said lawmakers are leaning too heavily on tolls to pay for transportation needs, while refusing to raise the gas tax and raiding the transportation funding they do have for other purposes. 

Though gas tax hikes are by no means popular, Anderson said they would be more equitable. 

"This reliance on tolls means fewer people are paying more expense," Anderson said. 

Next door in Virginia, he said, officials are setting a "terrible" standard by jacking up the toll rate on the highway to Dulles International Airport in order to pay for an eventual Metro line there. The third in a series of toll increases on that road is scheduled for the beginning of 2012. 

Elsewhere, the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission last month approved increases at its seven toll bridges, from 75 cents to $1, effective July 1. In justifying the decision, the commission noted that they held off on raising toll rates during the recession when other regional toll agencies did not. The basic toll rate has been at 75 cents since 2003. 

A separate Delaware River bridge commission is planning a toll increase on the same date for the Delaware Memorial Bridge connecting New Jersey and Delaware. That rate will go from $3 to $4. 

For tourists on the way to North Carolina's Outer Banks, officials this year also tripled summer weekend rates on the Chesapeake Expressway to $6.