Maryland’s stepped-up efforts to collect unpaid tolls are raking in millions of dollars for the state — outpacing the growth in toll revenue itself.

State lawmakers and consumer protection groups say the crackdown — which includes referring thousands of delinquent accounts to collections — is punitive and predatory, and is pushing Marylanders into debt — and in some cases bankruptcy. Transportation officials say they are only enforcing tolls motorists should be paying anyway — a major shift from years past when the state allowed scofflaws to run up hefty amounts in unpaid tolls and fines without consequences.

“Certainly, we want to collect unpaid tolls out of fairness to the 99% of our customers who do pay as expected,” John Sales, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA) said via email. “But, we are far more interested in encouraging E-ZPass usage and prompt payment of tolls due rather than trying to collect overdue tolls and fines.”

Last year, MdTA billed 2.2 million penalties worth $109.7 million, according to a toll authority report. The authority, which oversees the state’s nine toll facilities, collected $41.7 million in fines in fiscal 2017.

Toll revenue overall is up, but the yield from penalties on late payments and other toll-related fees is even more dramatic. In fiscal 2017, which ended in June, toll revenue rose by about $26 million to $670.8 million, a 4 percent increase driven by more users and more toll transactions across the state.

Toll administrative revenue, which includes fines, was $61.3 million last year, up from $40.7 million in fiscal 2016 — a 50 percent increase. That administrative revenue, which includes proceeds from unused commuter trips, E-ZPass service fees and transponder sales, has more than doubled in four years. An MdTA fiscal report attributes the growth to “enforcement actions.”

The state’s transportation chief pledged in late 2012 to use all means at the disposal of the MdTA to enforce tolls and collect $6.7 million in unpaid tolls, including hundreds of thousands of dollars owed by car rental companies that had ignored bills from the state.

'Unregulated revenue stream'

A strong economy and lower gas prices have meant more cars on the road and thus more toll users. The growth has been most pronounced on the Intercounty Connector, one of two cashless toll systems in the state. It also has the highest number of unpaid tolls.

Toll violators get a bill in the mail and have 45 days to pay before a $50 civil penalty is assessed. After another month without payment, the account can be referred to the Motor Vehicle Administration for suspension of the vehicle’s registration. The next step is collection.

Hundreds of thousands of delinquent transactions have been referred to collections since 2013, and thousands of drivers have had their vehicle registration suspended.

Since summer 2014, more than 479,000 people have been referred to the state’s Central Collection Unit, 207,000 have been sent to the MVA to have holds placed on their registration renewal — and of those, more than 22,000 have had their registration suspended because of toll violations, according to MdTA data.

“It’s outrageous and it’s a perfect example of government bureaucracy run amok,” said state Sen. Roger Manno (D-Montgomery), who has advocated for smaller fines and additional safeguards to protect toll road users from system glitches.

“This has become an unmitigated, unregulated revenue stream,” he said. “It is an enormous slush fund with no oversight. None.”

Toll road users who do not have an E-ZPass transponder — or a current one — and get tagged by the roads’ cameras have complained that notices have gone missing — or worse, have arrived only after their accounts are already in the Central Collection Unit. Video tolling is used on all the state’s toll roads, but has a bigger effect on those that have only electronic payment systems — meaning no toll booths for drivers to pay with cash, such as the ICC in the Washington area and the Interstate 95 Express Toll Lanes in the Baltimore area.

Sales, the MdTA spokesman, said delinquent accounts are referred for nonrenewal of their registration 30 days after a 45-day grace period has passed; a few days later, the account is referred to collections. It is a last resort, state officials say. (Violators from other states are referred for collection. Maryland does not have enforcement reciprocity agreements with other states, so it does not have the authority to request those motorists’ registrations be suspended or renewals be blocked.)

But those referrals are happening more often. In fiscal 2012, the accounts of nearly 700 vehicle owners were sent to the collection unit; four years later, the number was 273,580; last year, it was 205,605.

Transportation officials said they had to take action to ensure people were not cheating the system.

But critics contend that not everyone who fails to pay a toll is a scofflaw. Some might be unaware the road they are using is a toll road, others might be on an unplanned trip and do not have cash. Sometimes the systems fail to deduct the toll from an E-ZPass transponder or the transponder does not have enough money.

Also, nearly 30 percent of drivers with E-ZPass accounts in the state do not have automatic credit card replenishment for their accounts. Unlike E-ZPass Virginia, the Maryland system until recently did not send account holders a warning when their balance was low.

Plus, the $50 fine, which is higher than the state’s $40 fine for speeding, is “draconian,” said John Townsend, of AAA Mid-Atlantic.

'Overwhelming' fees, debt

It has become, Manno said, “toll debtors prison,” with simple problems with expired credit cards or a wrong address on an E-ZPass account turning into a financial nightmare.

“It is particularly damaging for low- to moderate-income drivers, but no one is immune,” said Holly Mirabella, policy associate at CASH campaign, which has lobbied the state to reduce the $50 penalty. “Folks are trapped in this cycle of debt. They are taking out a loan to pay this debt with an even higher interest rate.”

Efforts to halve the $50 fine failed in the past two sessions of the General Assembly. But lawmakers approved a bill sponsored by Manno that allows the transportation authority to pull some cases out of collections to work with individuals who have more than $300 in toll debt. The bill, which is awaiting the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), could allow cases where drivers had valid reasons for not paying, including common credit card mix-ups and address changes.

Several Maryland residents spoke in support of the legislation at a hearing in Annapolis last month recounting nightmares of bankruptcy, revocation of their registrations and racking up major debt — primarily after using the ICC. About half of the 2.2 million penalties issued in 2017 were transactions on the ICC, the state’s first all-electronic toll road that connects Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Montgomery County resident Danielle Holden told lawmakers she went bankrupt as a result of toll debt. She said by the time she received notice that she owed tolls, the account was in collection and totaled $14,000. Joe Sperberg, president of an information technology company, described how $200 worth of tolls turned into $3,000. Henrique Ribeiro of Takoma Park said an expired check card tied to his E-ZPass account resulted in a $2,000 debt. And Nydia Carittini said her registration was suspended and she is still trying to pay nearly $4,000 in fines after an overdrawn bank account meant her E-ZPass account did not replenish.

“It is overwhelming,” Carittini told lawmakers. “Nobody seems to want to work with you and fees just get higher and higher.”

MdTA officials said the authority implemented changes in November to give customers more time to resolve their cases before referring them to the MVA or Central Collection Unit. They have started sending email alerts to customers with low or negative E-ZPass balances, or when a video toll is assessed. New waiver guidelines have improved the agency’s customer service and aided case resolution before they are sent to collections, officials said.

Working more closely with customers, Sales said, the MdTA has been able to collect more previously unpaid tolls than in previous years, revenue that is put back into toll facilities for operations, maintenance and new construction.

Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the failed bill to reduce the fines, said he is concerned that the state views the penalties as a lucrative source of revenue. He said the problems could become more widespread when the state’s toll facilities go completely cashless and if toll lanes are added to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270, as Hogan has proposed.

The transition to an all-electronic system could begin as early as summer 2019. Transportation officials say that is why they are marketing the E-ZPass, which if used correctly, can save drivers the trouble of penalties and move them through toll lanes more quickly. More than 1 million people have an E-ZPass in the state, and about 78.5 percent of the toll transactions are made with an E-ZPass transponder, officials said.

Carr is unsure of the strategy. “There will be a lot more video tolls and a lot more late fees if we continue down this path,” he said.