That was a phrase tossed around Monday afternoon at a public meeting alongside the Pulaski Highway in Cecil County, where residents, business owners and politicians gathered to present a unified front against a proposed increase in toll fees and elimination of the popular AVI decal option for toll payment at the Hatem Bridge.
With the toll plaza and the arch of the bridge in view, locals gathered in a parking lot adjacent to Lindy’s Restaurant to voice their concerns over a change in the toll structure supported by the Maryland Transportation Authority Board. Included in the changes is an increase in an annual fee for motorists seeking to take advantage of a discount program from the current $10 to $36 later this year and to $72 in 2013. Critics point out that moroists could incur other new expenses as well.
One Cecil County resident, Amy Sinclair, works at a dental practice with offices in Havre de Grace and Cecil County; her parents live in Harford County, and her siblings live in Cecil County. Her circumstances are similar to many who would have to pay more.
“It affects every person that lives in Cecil County and Harford County. It affects our veterans,” Sinclair said, referencing the veteran health care facility at Perry Point in Cecil County. “These are people who went to fight for us, and what are we doing for them?”
Main issues for locals are a change in the toll rate as well as discontinuing the AVI decal option, which has a $10 annual fee. Instead of continuing with the bar-code decals, the state transportation authority board wants to use the E-ZPass system.
According to state Sen. Nancy Jacobs new website, HatemTolls.com, the proposal would increase the current Hatem Bridge single-use toll from $5 to $6 in October, and to $8 in 2013. The cost to participate in the new annual E-ZPass program for the Hatem Bridge would be $36 (increasing to $72 in 2013). New E-ZPass users would incur additional costs: $21 for a transponder, a required $25 E-ZPass account deposit and $18 in annual maintenance fees (billed at $1.50 a month).
The Hatem Bridge is not the only toll facility impacted by the transportation authority board's proposal.
Tolls for passenger cars on the Bay Bridge would increase from $2.50 to $5 beginning Oct. 1 and increase to $8 on July 1, 2013.
In addition, the cost for a one-way toll on the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Harbor Tunnel and the Key Bridge would jump from $2 to $3 on Oct. 1 and to $4 on July 1, 2013.
Other toll increases set for Oct. 1 include the John F. Kennedy Highway, from $5 to $6, and the Harry W. Nice Bridge in Southern Maryland, from $3 to $5. Those tolls would increase to $8 on July 1, 2013.
Finally, there will also be increases for E-ZPass users and commuters along with a video toll rate for vehicles traveling through a toll plaza without a valid E-ZPass or making cash payment. The video rate would replace the existing $3 notice-of-toll-due fee and would be 25 percent higher than the proposed cash rates.
Jacobs made the opening remarks Monday afternoon followed by about a dozen local politicians and even more residents and business owners. Her comments struck a chord with many, drawing applause.
“We’ve found a court case in Rhode Island where the people sued the toll facility in Rhode Island, and they won, to have cheaper rates for local commuters,” Jacobs said. “They’re telling us at the state, ‘We can’t do this.’ I’ve got the court case that says you can. As a group, if they don’t back down on this, we’re going to be filing suit against the State of Maryland for what they’re doing.”
Public meetings on the toll increases will be held 6 p.m., June 16 at Perryville High School, and on June 27 at the Havre de Grace Activity Center.
U.S. Rep. Andy Harris was among those speaking against the increase on Monday calling it “a huge issue.” Harris said the state regularly squanders “hundreds of millions of highway dollars each year.”
Del. Michael Smigiel, of Cecil County said the fee increase will help pay for the Inter-County Connector, which he described as an 18-mile, $2.5 billion project in Montgomery County.
“They’re not going to put a toll on the ICC,” he said. “You’re going to pay the toll for the ICC.”
He also addressed a related issue: central, urban Maryland dictating policies that impact rural Maryland.
“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. We’re not going to let them push this through,” Smigiel said. “We will not let the urban areas to dictate to the rural areas how we will pay for their mass transit boondoggles.”
Perryville Mayor Jim Eberhardt said: “Where is our hospital facility? Right across the bridge. And most of our medical services. You look at this bridge and you think, ‘Wow, it costs $5 to cross this bridge.’ It costs $2.50 to cross the Bay Bridge. How do you price that commodity? That Bay Bridge is four miles long. Sixty cents a mile? This bridge is 1.4 miles, it costs $5. It’s about $3.75 a mile? How do you price that commodity? We have been paying much more here locally than other parts of the state, and it sounds like we’re going to get it again.”
Until last week, the Hatem Bridge had been undergoing renovations since June 2008.
According to the Maryland Transportation Authority, about 11 million vehicles travel the bridge each year. Northbound motorists pay a toll when traveling from Harford County to Cecil County when they reach the Cecil County side of the bridge. There is no toll southbound.
The toll system on the Tydings Bridge that carries I-95 over the Susquehanna River is set up in similar fashion—only motorists traveling north pay a toll. E-ZPass lanes have been in operation at the Tydings Bridge toll facility for years.
The only other roadway for crossing the Susquehanna River is the Conowingo Dam, which carries one lane of Route 1 across the river in each direction. There are no tolls at the dam.
The increase in tolls that took place on the Hatem Bridge a decade ago caused many businesses to alter their operations. For example, Scott Sewell spoke on behalf of bass fisherman in the state Monday when he said Cecil County tournaments that his organization used to sponsor and participate in have been skipped in favor of those located on the other side of the toll facility.
The Hatem Bridge was supposed to be free for Harford and Cecil County residents after its initial construction was paid for, according to many accounts Monday. Harford County Executive and local historian David Craig referenced the sale of a train/automobile hybrid bridge in 1906.
“In 1940, when they opened the Hatem Bridge, they said, once it’s paid for, it will be free to people from Cecil and Harford County,” Craig said. “Seventy-one years later, we’re still waiting for them to come to that promise.”
The Havre de Grace politician opened with a quip to his neighbors to the east, saying Cecil County residents must feel special: “You’re the only people who have to pay to get into or out of your county in the state of Maryland. And that has to change.”
After citing the $4 toll on southbound I-95 at the Maryland-Delaware border, Jim Mullin, president of Cecil County’s Board of Commissioners, spoke to the isolation Cecil County residents feel. With the increase in fees, he said that isolation would only continue.
Mullin said, “Pretty soon we become one big island out here.”