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Out-of-state drivers owe more than $167 million to Maryland. The state wants to recoup the unpaid tolls.

The state tolling authority is being urged to negotiate reciprocity agreements with neighboring states to recoup the tolls.

Traffic approaches the Fort McHenry Tunnel toll booths near Baltimore. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)
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Out-of-state drivers owe Maryland more than $167 million in unpaid tolls — and some state lawmakers say they have an idea for how to recoup the funds.

Maryland, they say, should negotiate with other states to share information about drivers with outstanding toll bills.

Reciprocity agreements with neighboring states would help the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages the state’s eight toll roads and bridges, recover unpaid tolls and late fees without resulting in more punitive fees for drivers, said Maryland Del. Alfred C. Carr Jr. (D-Montgomery). Carr is one of 38 lawmakers who signed a letter last month urging the state to pursue agreements with states such as Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“Maryland should follow in the footsteps of states like Massachusetts that have been so effective in collecting all the revenue that they’re due and doing it in a consumer-friendly way,” Carr said.

Massachusetts has agreements with its neighbors, in which states flag the toll debts to motor vehicle services. Drivers must pay outstanding tolls and fines to renew vehicle registrations or drivers’ licenses.

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In Maryland, the state tolling agency can enforce collection of past-due tolls from Maryland residents, but collecting from nonresident drivers who don’t pay is more challenging, the MDTA said.

Unpaid tolls from nonresidents incurred from July 2013 through August 2020 amounted to $167.6 million, according to MDTA data. The debt probably has grown in the past year as the state moved to cashless tolling. In the first eight months of 2020 alone, the debt grew by $30 million.

Without a cash option, drivers without an E-ZPass transponder are billed via mail.

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The MDTA said it is pursuing the sale of its out-of-state toll debt to a private debt collector to recover some of the unpaid tolls. The authority has recommended reciprocity agreements in the past, saying in a report to the General Assembly five years ago they offer the most effective strategy to recoup unpaid tolls. But an agency official said Friday they don’t provide a quick solution.

“Reciprocity agreements with the numerous separate tolling agencies is a very complex issue that would take years to come up with an agreement,” MDTA spokesman John Sales said in an email. He said the MDTA is developing procurement documents for an out-of-state debt-collections contract.

Carr said the debt-collection approach would probably result in the state recouping less revenue and could be more punitive to drivers. A private debt collector would go after delinquent toll-road users with letters, phone calls and possibly threats to report the debt to credit agencies, he said.

“A more sensible and sustainable plan would be to enter into reciprocity agreements with willing states,” said the April letter to the Maryland Board of Public Works, which oversees state contracts.

The letter urges the state to begin negotiating with Pennsylvania, which it said is willing to enter into an agreement with Maryland.

“Both states would benefit,” the letter said. “... Because their non-payment penalties are similar to those in Maryland, they would make an ideal partner.”

Pennsylvania drivers owe the MDTA $20 million: $5 million in tolls and about $15 million in late fees, representing unpaid tolls since 2013. In the past year, Pennsylvania drivers have accumulated $1.3 million in outstanding tolls that are due to Maryland. During the same period, Maryland drivers owed $1 million in tolls to Pennsylvania, not including penalties, according to the MDTA.

Delaware could be another willing partner because its cashless toll system works similar to Maryland’s, Carr said. Delaware drivers owe Maryland more than $11 million in tolls and fines, according to MDTA data.

Negotiating agreements with other states, such as Virginia, would be more complicated, officials said, because of differences in toll-enforcement actions and financial penalties.

For example, people traveling on Maryland toll roads without an E-ZPass transponder are billed by mail. Under Maryland law, drivers have 30 days to pay uncollected tolls issued as invoices. The tolls can be paid at before a $25 late fee kicks in.

In Virginia, however, using express lanes requires an E-ZPass. Anyone traveling without an E-ZPass receives a violation notice and can face severe penalties.

“The financial policies for unpaid tolls vary between tolling authorities,” the MDTA said in a 2019 report to the General Assembly. “Civil penalties assessed for unpaid tolls that proceed to court in Virginia range from $50 for a first offense to $500 for four or more offenses within a specified time-frame.”

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Virginia drivers are the biggest offenders of unpaid toll bills in Maryland, according to state data. Their tolling debt, from 2013 to August 2020, was $28 million, according to MDTA records.

D.C. drivers have more than $13 million in outstanding tolls due to Maryland.

Sales said any reciprocity agreement should take into account the exposure that Maryland drivers would have to laws and penalties in other states. With Virginia, for example, the MDTA would need to enter into agreement with the state’s more than a dozen tolling entities, which don’t follow the same set of rules.

Most of the debt to the MDTA includes video toll late fees — in which motorists without an E-ZPass transponder pay by mail. The MDTA charged $50 per transaction on tolls as low as $1.50 until last year, when it cut the late fee to $25.

State lawmakers said they hope the state will give reciprocity a try before turning to a private company to collect the out-of-state toll debt.