State Pushes No Cash Tolls at Cecil County’s Hatem Bridge, Fines for non-EZ Pass Drivers; Del. Rudolph to Push Law to Keep Cash Tolls
The long battle royale over boosted tolls at the Hatem Bridge that links Cecil County to the rest of Maryland has taken on a new twist: the state wants to eliminate cash toll payment lanes and force motorists to use electronic EZ Pay transponders—or face a $12 fee, including a $4 penalty over the current $8 cash toll.
But Del. David Rudolph (D-35) said Tuesday he plans to introduce legislation in the General Assembly to stop the state proposal in its tracks.
Deborah Sharpless, deputy Executive Secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, told the Cecil County Council on Tuesday that the state wants to eliminate the toll booths at the Route 40 span that links Cecil and Harford Counties as a cost-saving measure that would also improve traffic flow over the bridge. She justified the proposal by saying that 91 percent of the motorists now using the bridge pay tolls by EZ Pass electronic transponders.
In 2011, the MTA proposed elimination of a traditional $10 a year decal for unlimited trips over the bridge and initially insisted upon a mandatory EZ Pass transponder plan that would have forced Cecil County residents to pay $36 a year, plus $1.50 a month to maintain an online credit-card financed account, plus a $25 fee to purchase a transponder. After an outpouring of citizen and elected officials’ protests, the MTA modified the plan to provide a free Hatem-only transponder until 1/31/13, with the annual toll fee raised last summer to $20 but with no monthly account maintenance fee.
As part of that plan, cash tolls were boosted from $5 to $8 per round-trip, effective 7/1/13. But now, Sharpless said, the state wants to eliminate the cash option and if a motorist does not have an EZ Pass, a camera would record the license tag and the motorist would be billed $12—with escalating penalties for non-payment within a month, leading to possible suspension of a car’s state registration.
“How can you justify” a 50 percent differential between the current cash toll and a punitive surcharge added to non-EZ Pay using motorists, County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) asked. “This is going to be a big deal for our citizens, because we rely on that bridge.” Hodge also pointed out that the surcharge, and the surprise factor when motorists get a whopping $12 bill in the mail for a visit to Cecil County, would be a major deterrent to tourism and business development in the county.
“I think it’s a rip-off,” Hodge said.
Sharpless said state law provided for a 50 percent surcharge on video-captured vehicle license plates of cars traveling through toll booths without paying a toll or displaying an EZ Pass as a way to discourage scofflaws who try to evade tolls.
But Hodge said the new proposal treats everyone as scofflaws when in fact people might be more than willing to pay the $8 cash toll, but the new proposal “eliminates their choice” to pay cash and instead slaps motorists with a fine on top of the basic toll.
“There’s little incentive to come into Cecil County,” Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) said of the proposal. “It’s exorbitant, it’s ridiculous.”
Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) pointed out that the Hatem bridge, which is largely a local inter-county corridor between Cecil and Harford counties, already carries a significantly higher toll than the longer and more costly to operate Bay Bridge, which currently has a $6 round trip cash toll. The state is not proposing elimination of a cash toll option on the Bay Bridge, or other major bridges in the state except for the local Hatem Bridge.
And to add insult to injury, Sharpless told the Council that the state planned to close the “stop-in center” at the Hatem Bridge, where local residents can pay cash to buy a transponder under a Hatem Bridge-only discount plan. Instead, local residents would have to travel on Interstate 95 to an administration building to deal with EZ pass purchases.
Del. Rudolph told the Council that he is drafting legislation to mandate a cash toll lane for the Hatem Bridge and urged the Council and County Executive to put such a proposal on their priority list to the full legislative delegation to Annapolis for action in the 2014 General Assembly.
The MTA proposal to eliminate a cash toll lane on the Hatem bridge “will have a significant impact on Cecil County and Harford County,” Rudolph said, adding that the mayors of towns on both sides of the bridge have already protested that the proposal would be a serious impediment to efforts to promote regional tourism and business development.