The Washington Post

Maryland toll officials seek stiffer penalties for chronic cheaters

Drivers pass through toll booths at the Bay Bridge on Aug., 30, 2012, in Annapolis, Md. Maryland Transportation Authority officials are drafting the details of legislation to crack down on motorists who drive through tolling points without an E-ZPass transponder and repeatedly ignore the bills. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

Maryland transportation officials asked state lawmakers Wednesday to make it easier to enforce penalties on chronic toll cheats, saying a $50 civil citation and the threat of having a vehicle’s registration suspended should be enough to encourage scofflaws to pay up.

Maryland Transportation Authority officials are still drafting the details of the legislation but said they will ask for more ways to crack down on motorists who drive through tolling points without an E-ZPass transponder and who repeatedly ignore the bills that arrive in the mail.

Over the past five years, those motorists have racked up $6.7 million in unpaid tolls, authority officials told the Maryland Senate Finance transportation subcommittee. That collective debt could grow quickly after the state opens express toll lanes north of Baltimore in 2014 and other all-electronic toll facilities, which will not have tollbooths, officials said.

Motorists on all-electronic toll roads, such as the recently opened Intercounty Connector, pay immediately via an E-ZPass transponder or later by mail. Motorists who receive mailed notices are charged a higher “video toll.”

By expanding video tolling, “we’ll create potential for more vulnerability” to people who ignore the mailed notices, said Harold Bartlett, the authority’s executive secretary.

Bartlett’s call for new ways to crack down on violators fell on sympathetic ears, but lawmakers wanted to see details of the legislation before passing judgment.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore), the transportation subcommittee chairman, said she found it disturbing that one-third of all video tolls go unpaid. Without stricter enforcement, Pugh said, that debt will grow as video tolling increases.

“With this kind of revenue at stake . . . that’s a real concern to me,” Pugh said after the briefing.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne’s) said a $50 citation sounded too high. Pipkin said his Eastern Shore constituents, many of whom commute daily over the tolled Chesapeake Bay Bridge, complain that it can take months to resolve problems with E-ZPass transponders. Such problems could lead to unfair citations, he said.

“Before you know it, working families could face thousands of dollars in fines” before an E-ZPass problem is resolved, Pipkin said after the briefing.

The scrutiny of Maryland’s toll enforcement follows a Washington Post article in September that reported that nearly 650,000 vehicle owners owed about $6.7 million in unpaid tolls dating back as much as five years. The vehicle owners include a car-rental company that owed nearly $209,000 despite having received nearly 7,000 notices over four years. About 15,000 individual vehicle owners owed more than $500 each.

The closer attention also comes as Maryland and other states rely increasingly on toll revenue to finance transportation construction.

Under the coming legislation, Bartlett said, a motorist would not be considered a violator unless a mailed video-toll bill had been ignored for 30 days. At that point, the state would issue a $50 civil citation, which could be paid or appealed to District Court. Multiple unpaid citations or court fines would result in a vehicle’s registration being suspended or flagged for non-renewal until the tolls are paid.

The Motor Vehicle Administration has not suspended a vehicle registration for nonpayment of tolls in more than two years because the authority does not enforce the tolling law as written. Instead of imposing an immediate $50 citation, as the law directs, the authority charges a $25 late fee only after the bill is 30 days past due.

Authority officials say they do not enforce the law because, with the advent of video tolling, they need to give motorists without E-ZPass transponders time to pay by mail.

The legislation also would allow Maryland to enter into reciprocity agreements with other states, Bartlett said. That would permit the authority to pursue out-of-state motorists, who account for about one-fourth of the toll debt, he said.

The worst scofflaws also could find their names published online in a kind of “Hall of Shame,” authority officials said. The legislation would seek to lift privacy protections that prohibit the authority from publicly identifying the worst violators, as some other states have begun to do.

Similar legislation failed last year, but Bartlett said the authority accepted the blame because it was proposed too late. This year, he said, it will be introduced earlier in the General Assembly session.

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.

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