Not to be outdone their counterparts on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna River two weeks ago, hundreds of Harford County residents flooded the Havre de Grace Activity Center Monday night in opposition to a proposed hike in tolls on the state Route 40 Hatem Bridge.
Crowds in the community center were estimated at around 800 people, slightly less than the 1,000 who turned out at the previous meeting in Perryville. On her personal website, Sen. Nancy Jacobs asserted that “More than 2,000 people filled two large rooms at the HDG Community Center to voice their opinions concerning the Hatem Bridge.”
As at the Cecil County meeting, a number of protestors held signs outside the building, bearing messages such as “The high tolls are going to destroy our community” and “Hatem Bridge is O’Malley’s Berlin Wall.”
Boos rained down as the Maryland Transportation Authority showed a short informational film, and after announcements of changes that attendees found displeasing. Crowd members loudly booed or yelled their grievances, while others yelled “extortion!”
Beverley Swaim-Staley, secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, has attended the majority of the hearings and said the MdTA was “hearing a lot from recreational people who are towing campers or boats,” suggesting that the toll price for recreational vehicles may be changed.
Under the current proposal, outlined on Transportation Authority handouts, phase one of the proposed toll increase calls for the Hatem Bridge toll to increase to $6 from $5 by October 1. The current annual decal program will be discontinued and changed over to the E-ZPass program. As a result, the annual fee to cross the bridge will increase to $36 to $10.
Effective July 1, 2013, the toll will increase to $72 from $36, MdTA officials said.
The possible discontinuation of the AVI decals drew the most criticism, with some 89 percent of Hatem Bridge travellers said to use the decals. MdTA posters displayed at the hearing likened AVI decals to Ataris and the E-ZPass to Xbox 360s in terms of how they compared technologically.
“[The AVI decal] is a 1970’s toll collection technology…at this point [the Hatem Bridge] is the only facility in Maryland that has that type of toll collection,” an MdTA representative said. “Right now we’re operating with multiple toll collection systems…so you have the latest toll technology paired up with 1970′s technology.”
The representative said that MdTA is having an increasingly difficult time repairing the AVI system as it’s parts become outdated.
Opponents of the toll hike also worried that the profits from the increased toll would go to fund the state’s Intercounty Connector—which upon completion will connect Montgomery County and Prince George’s County—rather than helping improve Cecil and Harford County specifically.
“The ICC was built for [Montgomery County] for convenience, the Hatem bridge was built for us out of necessity,” Sen. Jacobs said.
Perhaps the most sympathetic testimonial given came from Karen Green, who described herself as “bi-county,” living in between Harford and Cecil county, and who suffers from terminal kidney disease and must go over the Hatem bridge several times a week to visit her hospital to undergo dialysis.
“I spend 12 hours a week in dialysis…without treatment, which I must go to three times a week, I will die,” Green said. “Because I do live in Port Deposit, [avoiding the bridge by going over] the dam isn’t always an option…because [when it rains] 222 would be flooded. This toll kills me, literally, because I will not be able to afford the transportation.”
“When you’re looking at this toll, see my face,” Green said. “I don’t know how much longer it will be here, but I’d like it to be as long as possible.”
The evening was not all just testimonials.
While most representatives of the community refused any sort of compromise, Del. David Rudolph proposed an alternative plan, which included the following points:
1. The establishment of a resident toll plan on the I-95 bridge which would allow residents of Maryland to pay a $10 annual fee to drive the Maryland portion of the I-95 corridor with unlimited access. Rudolph noted that, in the Cecil county meeting , “the only people in the state of Maryland who have to pay to use I-95 [in their counties] are the good citizens of Cecil County…citizens of Maryland should be treated equally and right now we’re not being treated equally.”
2. The proposed toll increase for Hatem Bridge is “unacceptable,” and Rudolph the MdTA “should keep our $10 toll for Maryland residents and initiate out of state tolls for those using AVI decals” that live out of state. Rudolph cited precedence in Federal courts, which he said “have ruled that you can have in-state rates.” Rudolph wants out of state rates to go to $40, citing a Rhode Island case, Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority v. Isabel Cohen, which found that a rate lopsided toward the benefit of in-state users was acceptable.
3. The removal of the AVI Decal on safety grounds, as “employees were [forced] to jump from lane to lane [in order to handle] expired AVI decals…I believe it’s fair to these people that they should not be jumping.”
A more detailed look at his proposal can be found at his website: http://www.drudolph.org/
More information on the toll price changes can be found at mdta.maryland.gov.
Tune into WAMD 970 AM Tuesday after 3 p.m. to hear audio and Jeff Jarina’s recap from Monday night’s toll hearing.
Photos courtesy of www.HatemTolls.com.