By Sam Smith
The Maryland Transportation Authority is drafting legislation that it hopes will make it easier for the agency to collect unpaid video tolling citations.
Between 2008-2012, nearly 35% of video tolling citations went unpaid totalling roughly $6.7 million in lost revenue. After the Washington Post reported on the MDTA’s struggle to get car rental companies to pay on their outstanding tolling debt, it caught the attention of the Maryland Board of Public Works — made up of the governor, comptroller and treasurer.
Harold Bartlett, MDTA executive secretary, told the powerful board Wednesday that currently there is no law allowing the MDTA to suspend vehicle registrations and use tougher tactics to get violators to pay, similar to what is done with unpaid parking and speeding tickets.
“Last year we tried to get some legislation through that addressed this issue. Quite frankly, we came into the legislative session a little bit late,” Bartlett said. “Our current statute is written in such a way that the definition of violator doesn’t fit our current operating environment and doesn’t give us the ability to have that very powerful tool.”
The new legislation wiould include a citation system. If a toll is left unpaid for 30 days, a $50 dollar citation will be issued and the registration will be flagged. Three citations will lead to suspension of the registration. The MDTA police force will use license plate readers to seek vehicles that have suspended registrations and will take the license plates and impound the car, Bartlett said.
For now, the agency has sent $1.2 million in unpaid tolls to the Central Collection Unit that represented 3,000 accounts. Next week, another million is going to the CCU that will represent close to 100,000 accounts. Bartlett said the MDTA came to an agreement with a car rental company that is responsible for four of the top 10 largest unpaid accounts and is close to a settlement with two other car rental companies.
Board approves DNR purchase in Garrett County
The Board approved the purchase of a $550,000, 256-acre property in Garrett County for Program Open Space, a program to preserve natural habitat. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has targeted this property for a number of years, and it received a score of 122 in the Program Open Space targeting system because it will protect a number of endangered species.
Comptroller Peter Franchot questioned why the state must buy the property when there is no apparent danger of losing the property to development.
“All of our projects, as you know Mr. Comptroller, are the best of the best,” said Lisa Ward, DNR director of land acquisition and planning. “It scored a 122 and it’s protecting endangered species on this property. Although it is the first in this particular area, it has been on the target list for DNR for a number of years.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley said it will allow the DNR to improve the area’s value as a habitat to those species and although the area is not imminently in danger, it could still be vulnerable to development in the future.
“We are not buying properties because we feel like they are going to be putting houses in a particular area,” Ward said. “Our focus is on the ecological portion of it. Sometimes the threat of development would move it up in our priority order.
Maryland purchasing fewer gas-powered vehicles
On a presentation about state owned vehicles, the secretary of Budget and Management, Eloise Foster, said that since 2007, the state is buying a higher percentage of alternative fuel, hybrid and electronically powered vehicles.
The state owns nearly 8,800 vehicles, not counting locomotives and heavy equipment. That number is down from 9,500 in 2008 because the economy has prevented the state from purchasing more. However, 24% of the fleet can use alternatives to gasoline, up from 11% in 2004.
The state has four options when it comes to alternative fueling: ethanol, hybrid, compressed natural gas and straight electricity. Most of the buses in the state run on compressed natural gas.
While there are 114 ethanol fueling sites throughout Maryland, the state does not have a policy in place that ensures that the vehicles are fueled with ethanol, and many of the state vehicles are being run on gasoline.
“I’d like to do a much quicker conversion than what we are doing now. I appreciate the extent that we are buying vehicles that are alternative fueled vehicles. But, are we using them as alternative fueled vehicles or are we just gassing them up?” O’Malley said.
With much of the focus of alternative fuels based around corn-based ethanol, Franchot said he would like to see the state look for other fueling alternatives.
“I think it’s a consumer boondoggle. Well intentioned, clean our environment, save the air. But it’s just proven to be a counterproductive measure,” Franchot said. “I know it benefits a couple of farmers out in Iowa. But, how bout the rest of us that have to pay high food prices because of this adventure. If natural gas is an alternative and the governor supports that, I just think ethanol is a complete subsidy for a couple of folks that are out in the midwest. How bout our consumers?”
O’Malley said he would like to see Maryland take steps at becoming a member of a consortium of 15 states that is paving the way for high quantity purchases of CNG vehicles.