Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Taken for a Ride on the ICC

Imagine that you bring an item marked at $100 up to a store counter. The cashier takes your credit card, rings it up and says, “That will be $200.” Surprised, you ask, “What happened to the price?” The cashier replies, “We had a last-minute adjustment and since I am holding your credit card, I know you will pay for it.”

What was that? You say that has never happened to you? But it will, dear reader, as soon as you drive on the ICC.

Recently approved toll rates for the ICC are among the highest in the country, maxing out at 25-35 cents per mile during peak hours. Those rates are higher than stated by the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which assumed a baseline peak rate of 17 cents per mile and did not study any peak rates above 25 cents. Seven state legislators, most of whom ran on anti-ICC platforms in 2006, picked up on that fact and asked the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) to extend the comment period, but to no avail.

Why did the peak toll rate double in three years? It’s not because the project cost doubled. When contract costs increased a year ago, the state reacted by indefinitely postponing service road work near I-95. That kept the project on budget. Instead, the state is relying on a consultant’s report stating that the high tolls will result in “near maximum toll revenue potential.” That’s a change in course from the FEIS, which acknowledged the need to raise money but stated that in setting tolls “consideration would also be given to the desire to maximize use of the ICC so as to decrease traffic on alternative routes.”

Perhaps even worse than the tolls themselves is all the political demagoguery surrounding them. It is one thing for anti-ICC politicians like Council Member Phil Andrews to criticize the tolls. Andrews has opposed the ICC for many years on multiple grounds and his slamming of the tolls is perfectly consistent with his past positions. But the entire County Council, which has several ICC supporters, opposes the tolls too. Nancy Floreen, perhaps the county’s biggest ICC backer, calls the tolls “highway robbery.” We are not inclined to give ICC-boosting politicians a pass on the tolls. How can a politician be pro-ICC and anti-toll when it has been known since at least 1997 that the multi-billion dollar project would be financed with tolls? And is it really a surprise that a very expensive road project paid for by tolls would charge very high tolls?

Then there are state legislators like House Majority Leader Kumar Barve (D-17) and former Delegate Cheryl Kagan (D-17), who backed the ICC but now protest the tolls. Both of them were in office in 1997, when Delegates Dana Dembrow (D-20), Henry Heller (D-19), Adrienne Mandel (D-19), Patricia Faulkner (R-14B) and Raymond Beck (R-39) introduced a local bill prohibiting the ICC from becoming a toll road without the permission of the county’s state legislators. That bill would have given the delegation leverage to block onerous tolls. But neither Barve nor Kagan supported it and the bill died. Now both of them are shocked, shocked by the tolls! Other current state legislators who were in office at the time but did not co-sponsor this bill include Senators Brian Frosh (D-16) and Jennie Forehand (D-17) and Delegate Sheila Hixson (D-20).

Finally, all of these politicians are missing a key point. MdTA has sole authority to set toll rates. It does not answer to the General Assembly and does whatever it wants. It unilaterally decided to charge fees for E-ZPasses last winter, claims it is not subject to state laws like the Public Information Act and now ignores its own FEIS by doubling the peak toll rate. While the politicians are quick to condemn the tolls, none of them present a plan to make this agency accountable to the public.

And what are the results of the agency’s unaccountability? MdTA’s rationale for high tolls is that they are needed to avoid diverting lots of toll revenue from the rest of the state and/or Transportation Trust Fund money to pay off the ICC’s bonds. But the ICC tolls that they have approved are so unreasonably high that drivers may avoid the road altogether. Then MdTA would have to jack up tolls from the rest of the state or seek trust fund money to pay the bonds – which is exactly what they say they are trying to avoid. And the General Assembly has little power to review their actions or stop them.

Where is the outrage over that?