Oldtown Bridge MD-WV facing major regulatory problems for toll hike
By Peter Samuel
The Oldtown Low-Water Toll Bridge on the North Branch of the Potomac River in western Maryland faces major regulatory obstacles to raising tolls. Already one owner John F Teter has chucked it in, frustrated with what he said was the state's "endless paperwork" - from a state regulator in Baltimore called the Maryland Public Service Commission (MPSC).
But new owners Historical Oldtown Bridge Preservation LLC are again pursuing new toll rates. That involves detailing, costing out and documenting an improvement and maintenance plan, specifying in great detail all of their expenses, and forecasting revenues in order to compile a formal submission. And after a submission is accepted there are staff comments, public hearings and eventually a Yea or a Nay.
Manager and major shareholder in the new operation Lori Roberts, a businesswoman says that at present toll rates the bridge isn't making enough to pay operating expenses, repairs needed and the expenses of floods, let alone pay her anything for her time managing it, or any return on the investment.
The single lane wood decked Oldtown Bridge brings in about $100,000/year in tolls on about 200,000 tolled vehicle crossings a year (530/day average). Traffic is split about one-third regulars who pay $14 for an unlimited use monthly pass and two-thirds who pay cash per crossing: 50c for a two-axle vehicle, $2.00 for tractor-trailers, 25c/axle for trailers, 25c for motorbikes, and $1 others.
The toll booths are not very ergonomically designed and motorists can rarely make hand to hand contact with the toll collector. So standard practice is for the toll collector to extend out of the tollhouse window to the motorist a pink cup mounted on the end of a 30 inch long stick to take quarters or a bill. (see picture below)
There's usually at least one toll collector on duty in the two sided brick toll house, except in the middle of the night when the toll gates are left up and motorists get free rides.
Regulars with monthly passes don't need to be issued any sticker because "the toll collectors know them and their cars and we just wave them through."
Roberts says the toll collectors' wages are costing her about half toll revenues or $50k/year.
She says it's difficult to forecast other expenses because they are so dependent on the weather. The bridge is called a Low-Water bridge because it is designed for use when the river is low. Normally the deck is about six or seven feet above the river water level, but rains upriver regularly raise the water substantially.
Average of eight overtops a year
An average of eight times a year in the bridge's recent history, Roberts says, the bridge deck is overtopped. The bridge has to be closed. Such flood closures last anywhere from a few hours to two days. They are most common in the spring and fall when typically rainfall is highest, but they can happen any time of the year.
After each flood at a minimum there is debris to be removed and an inspection needed of the wooden 'runners' (2x6s bolted to crosspieces forming a tire track for vehicles on the 11ft wide deck). Often the flood loosens a runner and it has to be rebolted or replaced. And floods often erode the transition between the bitumen pavement of the approaches and the start of the wood deck.
The bridge proper is 340ft long by our measurement with eleven spans. 12 poured concrete columns or abutments resting on river bedrock support eleven sets of steel stringers or beams, their shape chosen to minimize flood water pressure. The bridge has no guard rails because they would tend to drag the structure downriver in a flood.
We asked Roberts if she'd thought about rebuilding the bridge above flood level?
She laughed, saying the toll revenues would never pay for that.
Higher toll rates she is proposing (passes for cars going from $14 to $18/month, and the spot toll from 50c to $1.00 for cars and tractor-trailers from $2 to $4) will at least pay for strengthening more of the abutments, she says, which is the highest priority.
She already took out a bank loan to pay for one abutment rebuild, but several more are cracked and need replacement.
Roberts and her partner Fields paid the previous owner John Teter $66,000 cash for the bridge mid-2010.
She hopes to have her formal application for the toll increase finalized to the satisfaction of Public Service Commission regulators this summer. But she says they keep on wanting more so she can't be sure when they'll be ready to go to formal hearings.
The Commission normally deals with gas, electric, telephone, railroad, water and sewage companies, private bus and taxi services. This is the only toll bridge they regulate and it doesn't have accountants to drum up numbers.
"I have to find time to do it myself," says Roberts. "And I have other work to do."
Does Maryland have jurisdiction?
It is an open question whether the state of Maryland really has jurisdiction. The bridge is an interstate bridge since it connects Maryland with West Virginia, and it was authorized by an act of the US Congress in the 1930s - which also prohibited any competing bridge within 5 miles. The Maryland-West Virginia border is on the southern bank of the river so all of the bridge structure is in Maryland territory. And for now the toll-house is in Maryland just far enough up the road to be above flood level.
What if she gave up on the Maryland tollhouse and collected tolls on the West Virginia side? The MPSC says it was established "to regulate public utilities and certain passenger transportation companies doing business in Maryland." What if the business was done at a new toll point on WV side? Would the paperwork people in West Virginia be easier to deal with than those in Baltimore?
Roberts laughs but says she wants to "do everything legit."
In 1995 Maryland officials tried to close the bridge citing safety issues and they actually placed concrete barriers on the approach road cutting off public access to the bridge. Unknown persons kept removing the barriers to get access to the bridge. After some months of this game officialdom gave up.
For people wanting to go Oldtown MD to Green Spring WV just across the bridge it's an hour extra trip via the WV28 bridge in Cumberland westward or about the same east over the river at Paw Paw.
Despite the officials' 'safety' concerns none of the bridge collapsed. No vehicles went in the river.
In 1999 more work was finally done to improve the bridge after toll passes were increased from $8 to the present $14/month.
Capitalizing on the scenic qualities
Meanwhile Roberts wants to attract potential customers by improving the look of 4 acres of riverbank they own at the bridge and publicizing the beauty of the river and environs for hikers, canoers, horseback riders and fishermen. The area is just off the C&O Canal National Park. The old canal inspired by George Washington is right alongside. Almost completely undeveloped tracts of Green Ridge State Forest and Warrior Mountain Wildlife Area continue the wild country 10 miles north to I-68.
Their website says:
"Camp along the 9 acres of the Potomac River's beautiful banks. Enjoy fishing, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, or just watching one of the 500 bridge crossers per day in a friendly relaxed environment. Boat ramp available."
And they are, with justification, stressing the "historic" in the naming of the toll bridge.
HISTORY: Joel Achenbach's "The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West" describes the first President's many travels through this area and his visits to an old friend who lived in Oldtown MD, Thomas Cresap. Cresap had a cabin right on the trail that served as a meeting place for travelers and a trading post for produce already flowing between the Ohio Valley and the east coast on this route. Later it was to get the C&O Canal, a major B&O railroad and most recently I-68 - since it was the best route through the Alleghenies.
Achenbach: "As (Washington) gazed at the river below (from his Mt Vernon estate) he could see it as a natural passage to the continental interior. The river he believed could become the great commercial artery to the west. A highway. A corridor. The Potomac already carried the tide hundreds of miles from the Capes of Virginia to, and he had paddled up the river, deep into the mountains, to the flank of the dividing ridge between the eastern and the western waters. From the Potomac headwaters it was just a quick jump to the headwaters of the Ohio. The Potomac was clearly The Route to the West."
By the 1930s the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had a major yard which made railroad ties on the West Virginia side of the river at Green Spring right across the river from Oldtown MD. Green Spring was smaller then as Oldtown was located on the major road through the mountains. It had housing and stores.
The river was crossed to Green Spring WV by boats, improvised footbridges, and when the river was extremely low, by ford.
Melvin Carpenter variously described as a tie inspector, a sawmill owner, and a businessman from Maryland who worked at the B&O yard on the WV side led efforts to get a vehicular bridge built. Having no luck with legislators in WV and MD getting taxpayer money he apparently got US Congressional authority to build it himself.
It opened in 1938 and is still much the same bridge today.
Public service commission
COMMENT: maybe this bridge is destined to close frequently for floods but how about a prefabricated, post tensioned concrete deck tied by internal steel cabling from shore to shore? And there has to be a better means of toll collection than the cup-on-the-stick even at such low volume bridge. But first they need to be liberated from the cost-plus pricing model of these regulators.