Maryland tolling agency, lawmakers pledge to go after toll cheaters
By Katherine Shaver,
Maryland’s tolling agency is investigating whether it can publicize the names of the worst toll scofflaws in a “Hall of Shame” and resume suspending the vehicle registrations of repeat offenders, the state’s top tolling official said Wednesday.
The chairman of a Maryland General Assembly transportation panel also said Wednesday that he will push legislation to target the thousands of motorists who are repeatedly blowing through E-ZPass lanes without a transponder and refusing to pay millions of dollars in unpaid tolls.
“We need to go after these people,” said Del. James E. Malone Jr. (D-Baltimore County), who heads the House subcommittee on motor vehicles and transportation.
Harold M. Bartlett, executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the state’s eight toll facilities, said he has spoken with Malone about how to get such legislation through the General Assembly next year. A similar proposal died in the spring, after being introduced late in the legislative session.
“I’m becoming more steadfast than ever about coming down hard on violators,” Bartlett said.
The Washington Post reported Monday that nearly 650,000 vehicle owners owe about $6.7 million in unpaid Maryland tolls dating back five years. Nine rental car companies owe between $80,000 and $209,000 each, according to the authority. About 15,000 individual vehicle owners owe more than $500 each.
Because the MdTA doesn’t enforce the law’s automatic $50 citation for not paying a toll, the state hasn’t suspended vehicle registrations of repeat violators since May 2010. The result: Scofflaws in Maryland face few consequences beyond a series of letters requesting payment.
Bartlett said the MdTA cannot enforce the state’s 1994 tolling law because it wrongly assumes a “violator” to be any vehicle that doesn’t pay at a toll plaza. The law doesn’t allow for the recent advent of “video tolling,” which allows motorists to use the E-ZPass lanes without an E-ZPass transponder and pay a higher toll rate later through the mail. Those motorists are in violation, Bartlett said, only if they don’t pay the bill within 30 days, when a $25 fee is tacked on.
The proposed legislation would have defined violators as those without a transponder who fail to pay the bill by the due date.
Bartlett said MdTA staff have spoken this week with tolling officials in New Jersey about that state’s “Wall of Shame,” which lists the worst toll cheats by name and home town on the Internet. The authority had denied a public records request by The Post for a database that included the names of Maryland’s toll violators, citing privacy protections in the electronic tolling law.
Bartlett said it appears as if a public list would violate those same privacy laws. “We’re looking into that,” he said.
He said the MdTA also is examining whether it has any other legal options for pursuing chronic violators’ vehicle registrations.
“The current statute doesn’t allow us to do that,” Bartlett said. “But we’re looking at whether any emergency situation might apply or if there is any statute beyond ours.”
Unpaid toll debts have mounted even as Maryland has increasingly turned to toll revenues to finance construction of the Intercounty Connector and other highway projects. The authority’s board increased tolls statewide in November to cover mounting construction debt. Another toll hike kicks in next year.
Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery) said the previous legislative proposal to crack down on scofflaws faced no opposition but died when it was incorporated into a larger budget bill that failed. “It would have passed as a stand-alone bill,” Carr said.
Del. Sam Arora (D-Montgomery), whose district includes the Intercounty Connector, said, “It’s about fairness. Those of us who use the ICC and other toll roads pay for this.”