A bill is being proposed by Senator Nancy J. King to the state Senate that would exempt school buses from paying tolls on the ICC.
The ICC, or Intercounty Connector, is aptly named for being a road connecting between counties. It is a state road maintained by the Maryland Transport Authority (MDTA).
Buses primarily use the highway for cross-county special education trips or for out-of-school sports events. However, school buses have been known to choose less convenient routes in order to avoid paying toll taxes on the highways.
Patricia O’Neil, a member of the MCPS board, has asked legislators to eliminate tolls on school buses for two reasons: increasing the efficiency of the school bus system and decreasing the amount of the school budget spent on transportation.
MCPS speaker Gboyinde Onijala relates that Montgomery County Public Schools spend almost $18,000 yearly on ICC tolls, a sizeable portion of the school transportation budget. However, school buses made up less than 5% of the toll revenue according to the MDTA website.
The proposed legislative change has received mixed support in the county.
Delegate Eric Luedtke supports the change and has sponsored the bill. “The ICC is a safer road, there are fewer accidents on it, so we want school buses to use it,” said Delegate Luedtke in an interview.
Luedtke mentioned expanding the bill to encompass an even wider area, targeting tolls roads like the Bay Bridge or Harbor Tunnel.
During this year’s General Assembly, which began Wednesday and is scheduled to end April 11, Luedtke said that he isn’t certain when lawmakers may act on the legislation. He is hoping the bill can get an early committee hearing so it can begin moving through the legislature.
“It doesn’t make sense for one part of the government to be paying another part of the government,” Delegate Luedtke continued.
However, some students are less convinced that the change is really necessary.
“It doesn’t honestly sound that bad that [the buses] have to pay the tolls. If [the county board] could propose [somewhere] the money would go, that would be viable, instead of just [getting] Chromebooks for schools that don’t use them,” said Cam Aaron, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School. “Do they have a plan for where the money would go? Maybe if they used that in low-income areas, it would make sense; but besides that, it seems irrelevant and stupid.”
Employees of the ICC disagree with the proposal for different reasons.
John Sales, spokesman for the ICC, said in an email on December 18th that the Maryland Transportation Authority is governed by a trust agreement for the benefit of its bondholders and that under that agreement county-owned buses must pay the tolls.
According to O’Neill, after Governor Larry Hogan declined to release the approximately $17.7 million share of the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI) in 2015. The school budget system was greatly affected. The GCEI funds are provided to school districts where the cost to educate students is higher than in other districts.
Governor Hogan plans to use the $68 million typically budgeted to the GCEI for the state pension system. Hogan has been battling with local government due to his fiscally Republican ideology, and has been holding on to the GCEI since May of 2015.
O’Neill sent Governor Hogan a letter on November 16th 2015 which explained the county’s need for additional school construction funds.
“We expect enrollment to increase by 10,000 students in the next decade,” O’Neill wrote. “This is why it is essential that the state not only maintain the $250 million previously set aside for school construction but rather increase it. We account for over 17 percent of the student population in the state, but only receive approximately 12 percent of the state’s construction funds.”
The outcome of the bill is still not certain, but a lot of work would have to be done if the legislation was passed. Most enthusiastic reception for the proposal has come from members of the county school boards, due to the money that the bill would allow them to save on transportation for students. The ICC continues to fight it; however, if the bill were passed, the ICC would not suffer very much, as only a small percentage of their toll-based revenue comes from school buses.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Alex Haddad of Richard Montgomery High School