Cumberland Times-News

February 28, 2013

Oltown Bridge tolls going up

Matthew Bieniek
Cumberland Times-News

— OLDTOWN — An agreement that will allow the owner of the Oldtown Bridge to increase rates to make needed repairs and make bridge operations more financially feasible was ratified in a proposed order by a judge.

Rate increases include a jump in the monthly pass cost from $14 to $45.

“The settlement sets rates which, for some, still produce ‘rate shock’. This result cannot be avoided for those at the lowest income levels,” wrote Dennis Sober in his order. Sober is a public utility law judge with the PSC. Bridge rates have not increased since 2001.

Bridge crossing rates for passenger cars, trucks and vans will be $1.50 per crossing, up from 50 cents. Rates for tractor-trailers and buses will rise from $2 to $6 per crossing, and motorcycles and ATVs from 25 cents to 50 cents. The monthly pass will be required for the next 18 months. After 18 months, the pass may be continued at the discretion of the bridge’s owner, currently Lori G. Roberts. Roberts operates the bridge as the principal for the Historical Oldtown Bridge Preservation, LLC.

During two public hearings, the possible elimination of the monthly pass was a concern to many of the individuals who made comments.

The order became final Friday pending any appeals filed.

The agreement was reached between Maryland Public Service Commission staff and the bridge’s owner, who had originally requested an even larger rate increase and elimination of a monthly pass that offered regular bridge users a discount over daily fares. The judge thought the agreement was fair and a big improvement over the original request.

“ ... I find that it is in the public interest to accept the settlement as filed. ... I find that the revised rates agreed to by the parties are just and reasonable and should be accepted,” Sober wrote in his order. An important consideration for the judge was that the bridge remain open. The alternative would result in the owner shutting down the bridge or a shutdown by authorities based on the condition of the bridge.

For those most affected by the rate increases, Sober suggested some options, which he called “creative ways” to lessen the pain of the rate increases.

“Carpools, employer subsidizations ... merchant subsidizations of customers, or parking on one side and walking over the bridge to the other side, with prearranged pickup, are some suggestions that might help offset the burden of higher tolls,” Sober wrote. The judge also suggested fundraising for the poor by churches or civic organizations to help with the tolls.

An amendment to the agreement, incorporated in the order, allows PSC staff to monitor repairs and if it finds the pace of repairs insufficient, to ask the PSC to rescind some or all of the rate increases.The agreement does allow the owner some flexibility to the timeframe for repairs based on income from the allowed rate increases, since they will be less than originally requested.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.