UPDATE: This bill finally passed both houses on the legislature’s final day after some back and forth between committees over the amount of the fines. It awaits action by the governor.
By Glynis Kazanjian
A bill bringing possible relief to Maryland motorists who face thousands of dollars in fines from unpaid E-ZPass tolls passed the Senate unanimously last Thursday and gets a hearing in a House committee next week.
Bill sponsor, Sen. Roger Manno, D-Montgomery, made fixes to his bill that died last year in committee, conforming it to a bill that passed the House last year.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles, told Manno at a March 7 hearing that he spoke with transportation officials last year and requested improvements. The Maryland Transportation Authority had a year to evaluate how it handles escalating fines that can devastate driver’s finances and credit ratings.
The bill, SB973, would allow the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) to recall delinquent debts over $300 from the Central Collection Unit under certain circumstances, prohibit the collection unit from collecting against a debt recalled by the transportation authority and require the MDTA to report to the governor and General Assembly progress on customer service operations.
“It pains me to be back here,” Manno testified March 7. “This bill deals with the persistent, pernicious practice of folks who are caught in this sort of toll penalty dragnet. … Because of small penalties, problems on their credit cards or wrong addresses – – administrative problems have made folks’ lives terrible and have ruined their credit. I’d like to ask you to take another look.”
$3,800 in fines for a single mom
In testimony before the committee, Nidia Carattini, a single mother from Montgomery County, said an overdrawn bank account connected to her E-ZPass account resulted in what are now $3,800 in fines.
“When I finally started getting collection notices, I tried to pay as quickly as possible,” Carattini said. “Some of the fees I wasn’t able to pay as quickly. They were attached to 60 to 80 trips. $50 per visit on the ICC. They said I couldn’t make payment plans and they were going to suspend my [vehicle] registration.”
Carattini said after her account was sent to CCU they would only allow collection payments after a 20% deposit was placed on the debt.
“I didn’t have the money, I didn’t do it.” Carattini said. “They took money from my state taxes and now it’s in a private collection agency. It’s like you need your car to work and you have to work to pay the fees and you don’t have enough money to pay the fees and they say they’re going to suspend your license. I’m a single mother. I need to work.”
Pausing frequently to fight back tears, Carattini told lawmakers she may have misread letters she received thinking she could only act if she was disputing the fees.
30 days to pay
MDTA Spokesman John Sales said when motorists don’t pay a toll on roads like the ICC, which only has electronic monitoring, video toll fees kick in.
For a video toll, Sales said, “it’s 50% higher than the base rate with a minimum of $1 and a maximum of $15 above the base rate.”
Sales said if the outstanding toll amount is paid within 30 days of the date in a mailed notification, “it’s closed and done.”
It takes MDTA, which obtains addresses from the Motor Vehicle Administration, two weeks to 30 days to mail out notices.
“If you don’t pay within 30 days, that’s when you get a $50 citation,” Sales said. “On the 45th day, the actual [$50] citation is assessed.”
Motorists may challenge the civil citation and penalties in district court within 30 days of being notified.
Sales said motorists who do not pay or challenge the fines or citation within 30 days are flagged with MVA for non-renewal of their vehicle registration. Motorists are also referred to the Central Collection Unit where a 17% service charge is added.
“Unpaid tolls and penalties combined less than a $1,000 will be referred to MVA with a vehicle registration non-renewal flag,” Sales said. “More than $1,000, you are flagged at MVA for [license] suspension.”
Sales said problems can occur when E-ZPass transponders die, motorists purchase new cars and don’t update their E-ZPass account and when new license plates are used.
“It’s really important for E-ZPass customers to keep their accounts up-to-date,” Sales said.
‘Egregious, excessive, abusive’
Henry Grubaro, a Takoma Park resident, said he and his wife ended up owing $500 on $20.58 worth of tolls after their bank cards were closed by the bank due to security breaches.
“It seems egregious and excessive and feels abusive as a citizen,” Grubaro said. “Like the preying mortgage industry, E-ZPass does a lot of those things. I ended up with another $2,000 going to CCU after they added their fees, and now I’m on a payment plan for another vehicle.”
Joe Sperber, an IT business owner who frequently uses the InterCounty Connector (Route 200), said he ended up owing about $3,000 in fines and penalties to the state when he used an old truck that didn’t have a transponder for. Testifying before the Finance Committee, Sperber said all the E-ZPass office had to do was align the license plate from his truck with his E-ZPass account.
Improving customer service
As part of a new customer service initiative launched by the Hogan administration earlier this year, MDTA has begun sending out email alerts telling E-ZPass customers when their accounts have a low balance, insufficient funds and when renewal dates are approaching. New attention grabbing envelopes with red ink will also be used when notices of fines are sent.
Using a new mobile website, ezpassmd.com, customers can also now add new or temporary vehicles to their accounts, replenish an account, update credit card information and pay video tolls. Transponders can also now be purchased through MVA eStores.
More MDTA service initiatives are planned for this year, according to the agency. MDTA will connect video toll transactions with license plate numbers, so unpaid tolls do not escalate to citations; and, MDTA will implement a video tolling customer service center helpline.
A hearing on Manno’s bill is scheduled for March 29 at 1 p.m. in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
Manno is one of eight Democrats running for Congress in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District for the seat of Rep. John Delaney, who is running for president.