Out-of-state drivers who ignore Maryland’s video tolls could soon be hearing from debt collectors.
A bill that passed the House of Delegates on Friday and is on its way to the state Senate would effectively allow the Maryland Transportation Authority to use a private debt collection firm to collect unpaid tolls from non-Maryland drivers.
Video tolls are incurred when a vehicle goes through a toll booth but doesn’t pay with cash or an E-ZPass.
Of the $102.2 million in unpaid tolls and penalties the authority estimates the state is owed from 576,000 non-Maryland drivers, the unit has been able to collect only about $1.3 million each year.
Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the bill as chair of a transportation subcommittee, said private debt collectors have more resources to go after the delinquent drivers than the state does.
“We don’t have a lot of leverage to bring them to the table to make them pay,” he said of out-of-state drivers. “Once they’ve got that figured out, they just don’t pay.”
A fiscal and policy analysis of the bill found that the transportation authority, which oversees the state’s toll facilities such as the one on the Intercounty Connector, relies on the state Central Collection Unit to recover unpaid tolls and the $50 late fees from out-of-towners.
But the state collection agency can’t use its typical enforcement actions, such as suspending vehicle registrations, on non-Maryland drivers.
Fraser-Hidalgo said the greatest number of motorists who don’t pay the tolls come from Virginia, whose drivers owe $22.5 million in tolls and penalties. Pennsylvania is next. One individual or company, he said, owed $202,000.
If the bill passes, the transportation agency would enter into a contract with a debt collection company to collect unpaid tolls and fees. The company would pay the state the value of the unpaid tolls plus a percentage of the civil penalties it collects.
The analysis found that the increased revenue the state would see from the switch would probably be “significant.”
A joint letter of support for the bill last month from representatives of the Maryland Transportation Authority and the Maryland Department of Transportation said the authority sent almost $55 million in unpaid video tolls and civil penalties to the state’s collection unit over the past two fiscal years. The letter says only about $1.3 million was recovered in that time, conflicting with the fiscal and policy analysis, which said about $1.3 million was collected each year. It was not immediately clear Friday which of the two figures was correct.
“As long as this debt goes uncollected, the violators’ use of the MDTA’s toll facilities is being subsidized by those customers who pay their tolls, namely Marylanders,” the letter stated.
The bill passed the House on Friday by a vote of 130 to 5. If it is passed by the Senate, it would take effect in June.
Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), whose amendment to sunset the bill in December failed in the House, said he thought the transportation authority could find other ways of recovering the funds — such as entering reciprocity agreements with neighboring states.
He also said the $50 civil penalty for paying tolls late was too high, hurting working families, and that allowing a private company to take a cut of the fee would give both the company and the transportation authority an “incentive” to keep the fee high.
“Once they get into the habit of selling the out-of-state toll debt and it becomes a revenue stream, my fear is that it will be hard to give up the revenue,” Carr said.