Maryland toll reductions won't harm transportation maintenance or current plans for projects, the state's transportation secretary said Tuesday, though lawmakers questioned how the state revenue loss wouldn't have a negative impact on infrastructure.
Pete Rahn, the state's transportation secretary in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's administration, told a panel of state senators that the toll reductions are affordable because of a combination of higher-than-expected revenues and efficiencies in operations within the Maryland Transportation Authority.
"I believe that the toll reductions have been extremely responsible," Rahn said. "I believe the reductions are financially responsible for both the tax payer and for the authority, and that we can accommodate these reductions within all of the plans of the authority."
Democrats on the two Senate panels, however, were wary of potential consequences of the reductions.
Sen. Thomas Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the surplus money used to help pay for the toll decrease had been cited as a reason the state could get serious about replacing a 73-year-old bridge in southern Maryland. The Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge connects Charles County and King George County, Virginia, across the Potomac River.
"Having a toll decrease is wonderful, if it doesn't mean that our project is going to be sacrificed," Middleton said.
Hogan, who campaigned on tax and toll reductions, announced the cuts in tolls last month. Many of them are scheduled to go into effect next month. The reductions are projected to save drivers about $54 million a year.
"The governor has said that he believes it is more important to have dollars in the pockets of hardworking Marylanders then on the balance sheet of the Maryland Transportation Authority, and we've met the conditions to responsibly reduce the tolls collected by the authority and still maintain the safety and quality of the system," Rahn said.
Middleton said bridge supporters are concerned that the project will require more debt to move forward, now that the state isn't building up surplus from higher revenues.
The bridge replacement has been projected to cost roughly $1 billion.
Rahn said about $53 million is still budgeted for preliminary studies. However, he said the $1 billion price tag by his estimate is "too much."
"I do believe that, going through this process of design, we will come up with a more economical design for the project, and hopefully at the point that this design is done, we will have a bridge that's more viable than a billion-dollar bridge," Rahn said.