Individual vehicle owners aren’t paying up, either. About 15,000 owe more than $500 each.
More than a few might have caught on to the fact that the letters sent by the state are paper tigers.
Pay up, the Maryland Transportation Authority says, or the vehicle’s registration could be suspended. But the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration hasn’t suspended a vehicle registration for nonpayment of tolls in more than two years. That’s because the authority hasn’t been hitting violators with a $50 citation, which it has to do by law if it wants the MVA to suspend registrations.
Instead, the authority, which operates the state’s eight toll facilities, mails vehicle owners a “notice of toll due.” After 30 days of nonpayment, the authority tacks on a $25 fee. Repeat violators are referred to the state’s central collection unit, which continues to send periodic letters requesting payment. But unlike its practice with other types of debt owed to the state, the unit never reports chronic toll violators to credit-rating agencies.
Del. Stephen W. Lafferty (D-Baltimore County) said he was “incredulous and livid” when he heard about the issue during a brief legislative hearing this spring. That law-abiding motorists have been paying higher tolls since November only added to his outrage, he said. “Someone owes $200,000, and you’re not going after these people?” Lafferty said. “Those people are taking advantage of the state.”
In total, nearly 650,000 vehicle owners owe about $6.7 million in unpaid tolls dating back five years, according to the authority.
Harold Bartlett, the authority’s executive secretary, said losses so far from unpaid tolls are “very manageable” as a portion of overall revenue and have not affected the authority’s ability to maintain or build toll facilities.
“Obviously, every single dollar is important to us, so we don’t take any comfort in saying it’s a small number,” Bartlett said. “We’re continuing to pursue avenues to get those numbers down.”
Authority officials said they are negotiating with the car-rental companies that owe the most. The agency, citing privacy protections in Maryland’s electronic tolling law, denied a public-records request from The Washington Post for the database that includes the names of the rental companies and other vehicle owners who owe money.
Losses from unpaid tolls amount to a minuscule share of the authority’s revenue, but the debt has grown quickly in recent years. In fiscal 2008, those annual losses amounted to $555,000, or two-tenths of 1 percent of that year’s toll revenue, according to the agency’s figures. Three years later, violators racked up $1.18 million in tolls owed, almost four-tenths of 1 percent of annual toll income.