CHESTERTOWN - The Maryland Transportation Authority, which controls tolls on highways and bridges in the state, will have to listen harder to the public next time it decides to raise prices.

Legislation sponsored by Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-36-Upper Shore, in the 2012 regular session, established a "protocol by which the Maryland Transportation Authority raises tolls ... and requires public comment throughout the process," according to a Pipkin press release. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and the House. It was signed into law two weeks ago.

At the MDTA board's September meeting where they took a unanimous vote for an increase, "those present were bystanders," Pipkin said.

"Finally, Maryland's drivers know what to expect when it comes to toll increases. When the State levies a toll increase of $225 million, the people should have a say, now they do," said the press release.

The state toll-road agency was criticized for how it handled matters the previous time tolls were raised, in 2009. Meetings the public could easily attend were a major issue. At the time, to avoid legislation which specified how toll increases would be handled, the MDTA adopted regulations.

A budget analysis prepared by the Department of Legislative Services for this year's General Assembly session notes "Chapter 164 of 2004 requires MDTA to provide notice to certain legislative committees prior to revising toll rates. ... In response to criticism from the legislature and public following toll increases in 2009, MDTA also issued regulations regarding additional processes for toll increases."

The rules call for 60 days' notice to the governor, General Assembly and public of proposed changes, plus public meetings within 30 miles of any "toll facility" affected. Also, the final vote on any proposal must be in an open meeting with at least 10 days' notice; and all notices are available on the agency website and in its offices.

However, citizens and legislators again faulted the MDTA in 2011.

In a November press release, after the toll hikes went into effect, Pipkin said, "It's deplorable that the unelected and unaccountable MdTA is allowed to raise the tolls at will and without a vote from the General Assembly." The eight MDTA board members are appointed by the governor and overseen by the secretary of transportation, who chairs the board.

The 36th District delegation, consisting of Pipkin and delegates Jay Jacobs, Steve Hershey and Mike Smigiel, were vocal critics of the latest toll plan. Residents of the Upper Shore must use toll crossings for the Susquehanna River or Chesapeake Bay. The legislators argued that bridge tolls were being used to carry the $2.5 billion cost of the Intercounty Connector.

During 2011, the agency held 10 public input meetings to hear comments about its toll increase. But citizens were not allowed to speak at any of its board meetings in Baltimore, including the one where the final toll plan was approved by a unanimous vote.

Public comments and legislative pressure caused the MDTA to change some details, but even so, the final plan was not available for public review until after the September vote to approve it.

As a result, citizens did not have any opportunity to weigh in on the final proposal, for or against, until the decision had been made.

"At the September meeting of the MDTA, when the toll increases passed, the public was not allowed to make comments. This law rights that wrong," said Jacobs in the press release.

"Transparency is what this bill is all about," said Smigiel, who sponsored a similar House bill. "I am glad we've pulled back the curtain to allow people more access to this process."

During the last session, the MDTA told the legislature it paid $20,000 for "contractual services" for each of the ten public meetings in 2011, or $200,000 total.

The MDTA has not published a breakdown of the meeting costs. The Department of Legislative Services' fiscal note to Pipkin's bill says "contractual services include posting public notice, recording and transcript services, printing and material costs, and review and summarization of comments submitted (but) does not include MDTA staff time spent on oversight and coordination."

The MDTA press office did not respond to phone calls asking for a cost breakdown by deadline time.

In an email, media contact Cheryl Sparks said, "This information is correct. If you would like the itemized expenses for the hearings, this request will be logged as a PIA and responded to accordingly."

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