Of the many issues I have spoken to since being elected by the good people of southeastern Baltimore County, the issue I have talked about most is tolls and their impact on our communities. I am happy to speak to where we are with this issue.
We lost everything
I decided to run for House of Delegates in 2013 after my father lost his job and my family lost their home.
Martin O’Malley and his allies in the General Assembly had stolen a ton of money from the Transportation Trust Fund (which, ironically you can’t trust) and used the depleted fund to justify an increase in the gas tax and an increase in tolls. After the turmoil of the housing bubble, every market was unstable, including commercial trucking. My father was an owner-operator in the commercial trucking industry. As small business people, owner operators own their own trucks and pay their own maintenance, gas and tolls. When the state raised the gas tax and tolls, it wiped us out.
Tolls were a big issue for our family and as we got closer to the gubernatorial elections, it became crystal clear that tolls were an issue for folks across our district.
I understood the oppression of tolls on average people who were just trying to get to work, adding hundreds or thousands of dollars in expenses every year just to access state roads. The story got even worse. Shortly after being elected I found a story about Shirley Gregory quite literally shooing commercial trucks out of St. Helena. I started to investigate.
We found a huge trend – commercial trucks were exiting the Port of Baltimore and traversing the community county roads of Dundalk in order to get to the next exit which did not have a toll. This causes massive quality of life issues for Dundalk. Robert Romiti of Squires Restaurant touched on this once in the March 15, 2018 edition of the Dundalk Eagle:
“Residents are awaked at 5 a.m. with loud jake brakes and questionable maintenance. Holabird Avenue is a narrow two-lane road with a major pedestrian school crossing at Delvale Avenue where, two years ago, a truck flipped over making that turn. No one got hurt that time. The forecast is for another 1,000 containers a month by the end of the year at Tradepoint alone.”
Dundalk is stranded
Think about this: the people of Dundalk have to pay a toll to access 695. Even though you do not cross the bridge, you still pay the toll. Nowhere in the state do we force a community to pay a toll to access state roads outside of Dundalk. Many residents feel that communities like Dundalk and Essex are “left behind” in some ways. In this case it is very true. This is a discriminatory denial of equal access to state roads which has left Dundalk land-locked by tolls.
And that is when we found our second problem: both commercial and non-commercial commuters were traversing the community roads of Dundalk in order to access the non-tolled entrance to 695 via Peninsula Highway. This was generating significant transient commercial and non-commercial traffic throughout Dundalk, especially during the morning and evening commutes. I have included a picture of the unintended consequences of the toll structure: a commercial truck driver destroying infrastructure, running over traffic signs, getting stuck on Sollers Point road and generally causing chaos on a county street. This transient traffic was and continues to be a problem for Dundalk.
Since elected, the District Six Delegation has continually sponsored legislation and lobbied for reforms aimed at addressing both the interchange at 695 and the general oppression of tolls for our area.
In our first year, 2015, Delegate Metzgar sponsored HB 214, which would require the Maryland Transportation Authority implement the plan utilized at the Hatem Memorial Bridge at the Key Bridge. In 2016, Senator Salling sponsored SB 416, which would study the implementation of a unique annual pass solution at the Key Bridge. In 2016 as HB 296 and again in 2017 as HB 290, I sponsored legislation to ban the tolling of commuters that did not use the Key Bridge. We were supported by groups ranging from community leadership at Turner Station to industry partners at the Port of Baltimore.
In the end, the only bill from the list above to pass was an amended version of my bill, HB 290. The amended version of HB 290 required the Maryland Transportation Authority to describe how it would resolve these issues during the procurement and deployment of “all video tolling,” which you are currently seeing deployed at the Key Bridge Toll Plaza. In response, the Maryland Toll Authority said that they were not going to provide the report because it was illegal. And that brought us to a new problem.
Most state agencies operate based on the direction of statute and funding from the budget. The Maryland Transportation Authority is its own legal authority. It is not funded by tax dollars. It is exclusively funded by long term debt and the debt is paid by the tolls it receives from its tolled facilities. This precludes any statutory intervention by lawmakers and any bill passed would most certainly be defeated in court as a legal breech of the contractual obligations between the Maryland Transportation Authority and those to who it owes debt payment.
This does not mean that our efforts to deal with these issues have ceased. However, it does mean that our strategy has changed. The Maryland Transportation Authority could fix all of these problems if they chose to. However, they cannot be forced to do anything.
On August 3, 2019 Governor Hogan visited a site in northern Baltimore County. I traveled there personally with a letter asking for a meeting to discuss this issue. When Comptroller Peter Franchot visited Dundalk and toured the new Dundalk Elementary, he had a subsequent visit with community leaders at the Boulevard Diner. I joined that meeting to touch on the toll issue. We will continue to advocate for reforms and I am optimistic that someone who has the power to help will help us with these issues and the impact of tolls on Dundalk and southeastern Baltimore County.