Did you head down to Ocean City for the long weekend and pay the $2.50 toll to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge?
Do you commute routinely into Baltimore city using the Baltimore Harbor or Ft. McHenry tunnels or the Francis Scott Key Bridge? Lots of tolls there, too.
Or maybe you were trying to get out of the heat and drove north toward Delaware on the John F. Kennedy Highway section of Interstate 95, where you paid a $5 toll.
Well, I didnít do any of those routes, but I did drive up to the Gaithersburg Motor Vehicle Administration Office to buy an E-Z Pass so that I can use the new Intercounty Connector, and I can pay a $1.15, off-peak toll rate each time I go.
It is a lovely drive. I worked long and hard to get the ICC built, as did so many others. When it connects to I-95 it will be great. Not only will the drive to BWI be faster and easier, but so will the drive to Pasta Plus in Laurel for wonderful Italian food and for visits to friends in Bowie and who knows what else as my horizon expands.
The tolls, though. What about the tolls?
Actually, Maryland is quite lucky to have gone so long with very few toll roads and bridges. Other than those already mentioned, we have only two others, the Thomas J. Hatem Bridge on U.S. Route 40 in Perryville and the Governor Harry W. Nice Bridge in Charles County.
Maryland had the first federally funded road in the nation in 1806 The National Road U.S. Route 40. It began in Cumberland and went west to Wheeling, W.Va. U.S. Route 40 is more than that today, and as the Maryland Department of Transportation points out it is just a small part of the 29,579 miles of interstate, primary and secondary roads and more than 2,400 bridges in the state, the overwhelming number of which are not toll roads.
A big advantage Maryland has is that our transportation planners through the years have designed backup routes in so many areas that reliance on toll roads is at a minimum. As an example, while it can take more than twice as long to travel north on 40 or U.S. Route 1 rather than using I-95 with a toll, it is our choice whether to save time or money.
The Maryland Transportation Authority recently discussed whether to make major across-the-board increases in tolls. The charge for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, where the current $2.50 round-trip toll has been in place since 1975, will double in future years.
We have to anticipate that more costly tolls are on the way. Luckily, their process includes taking much public input before final decisions are made.
A big concern of mine is the E-Z Pass. The E-Z Pass is a transponder system on your windshield that takes your toll as you travel on the toll road. There is no longer a need to get out your money and wait in line to pay the toll booth operators. Itís automatic. The system is in effect in 14 states from Virginia west to Illinois, and north to Maine, excluding Connecticut and Vermont. No Southern states are included, a real shortcoming.
A bigger factor, however, is that Maryland charges E-Z Pass users a monthly service fee. Thatís $1.50 each month whether or not you use the pass. Not only does this discourage Marylanders from buying the E-Z Pass, but it unduly penalizes those who bought the pass.
As far as Iím concerned, itís a way for big brother to track me. I donít like it.
For the ICC, drivers either have to have the E-Z Pass or their license plate will be photographed and a bill will be sent to the vehicle's owner, along with a $3 service fee. This is a standard toll-by-plate approach used in other states, including Florida.
Anytime you become a bill collector it is expensive and you are fortunate to have half your bills ďpaid in full.Ē The pass is much less costly and much more efficient.
However, here in Maryland we discourage E-Z Pass purchase. Floridaís SunPass, our E-Z Pass equivalent, has extremely high usage, said to be more than 60 percent statewide. Pass purchases are encouraged through more than 1,100 retail outlets, in addition to their turnpike offices. In Miami, 85 percent of drivers using all-electronic highways have the pass.
Here we can purchase the E-Z Pass at only 26 retail locations Mars and Giant Food stores or at nine MVA locations. Check www.ezpassmd.com for more information.
Lastly, Maryland really doesnít offer good enough incentives to draw drivers to using the E-Z Pass. There are no discount offerings for the ICC, and the time windows for discounts at other sites have been drastically reduced, severely penalizing those who have loyally used the pass for so long.
Make the E-Z Pass much easier to purchase, without a service fee and with a significant discount for use over the regular toll.
Are we ready for the High Occupancy Toll lanes? Georgia has their Peach Pass, and Northern Virginia soon will have their own Hot Lane E-Z Pass, allowing use of High Occupancy Vehicle lanes by those willing to pay according to the level of congestion on the roadway. The more congested, the more you pay.
Check out the MDOT website under ďMaryland Express Toll Lane (ETL) Initiative.Ē Surely more tolls are on our way.
Gail Ewing of Potomac is a retired at-large Montgomery County Council member. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.