By Meg Tully
As Maryland moves toward all-electronic toll billing and constituents complain about high fines that total thousands of dollars in some cases, two lawmakers are working to reduce the penalties for late video toll payments.
Drivers who go through toll facilities without paying – such as drivers on the all-electronic Intercounty Connector (ICC) who do not have EZ Pass transponders – are sent a video toll invoice. If the video toll is not paid within 30 days, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) issues a citation with a $50 civil penalty.
In the case of the ICC, commuters might get a notice with multiple trips included, so a single notice paid late can result in several $50 fines that add up quickly. (CORRECTION: ICC tolls are calculated at the entrance and exit to the toll road. ICC commuters who use the road frequently may get a notice with several missed toll trips, and each of those can result in a late penalty if not paid) Some drivers don’t realize they have a problem with an E-ZPass account or change addresses, only to later find out they owe hundreds or thousands in fines for small initial toll charges.
The Chesapeake Bay bridge has also gone to all cashless tolls on some days to ease traffic congestion.
The huge fines have put some on the path to “toll bankruptcy,” and broad enforcement powers enacted in 2013 to address toll violations have led to wage attachments, financial hardship and non-renewal of vehicle registrations at MVA, according to witnesses who testified against the fines in 2017.
In November 2018, the MDTA board voted to reduce that fine to $25 for the first five transactions but has delayed implementation until after the state transitions to contracts with new tolling vendors who will be using new 3G tolling technology.
Delegate calls it bad policy, harming Marylanders
“This is a really bad policy, it’s clogging our courts, it’s harming Marylanders,” said Del. Al Carr, D, whose Montgomery County district includes many ICC drivers. “It’s really unfortunate that they’re backing away from what they promised in terms of cutting (the fee). And even $25 is still too much, it’s a step in the right direction but it’s still too much.”
Carr and Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat, say the state would be better served by setting a smaller late fine and collecting toll debt when drivers go to renew their vehicle registrations.
They are proposing legislation in the coming General Assembly session that sets the late fine at $5 and ends the state’s ability to suspend registrations, instead flagging registrations at the time of renewal. The legislation also asks the MDTA to establish reciprocal toll agreements with other states instead of pursuing a plan to hire a collection agency to go after out-of-state drivers. See our sidebar on the more than $100 million that the state hopes to collect from out-of-state drivers.
$100 million in late fees
The late fines have a wide-ranging impact, with more than 2 million civil penalties issued in fiscal 2018 and $100,896,000 in late fees issued statewide.
“I’ve heard from multiple constituents who have had complaints about cashless video tolls and the collection process in Maryland,” Klausmeier said in a press release. “Working with the MDTA, I hope that this legislation will be extremely beneficial to people who use Maryland’s toll roads.”
These changes were modeled after Massachusetts, which moved to all-electronic tolling in 2016 and issues more modest late fees for drivers paying by plate. See the sidebar for more information on the Massachusetts model, which also has a $500 cap on penalties.
A spokesman for MDTA declined to comment on the proposal, saying the agency hasn’t seen the final version of the bill.
Video toll lost in move results in $1,200 bill
Gaithersburg resident Miguel Henriquez moved to a new apartment in March, and was shocked to receive two final bills months later stating he owed $1,221 in tolls and civil penalties.
Although he says he informed the U.S. Postal Service to forward his mail to the new address, he didn’t get the initial toll notice for a series of 16 video tolls on one notice and another notice for five video tolls.
As a driver for Lyft, he used his E-ZPass to drive people on the ICC to the BWI airport and thought he had paid the tolls, but said he doesn’t think he got a low balance notification and did not realize his account needed to be replenished. By the time he received the unexpected toll bill, he was considered late and each small toll, many of which were about $2, had a $50 fine attached.
Henriquez was unable to renew his vehicle registration because he couldn’t pay the fine. The notice, dated Nov. 16, said the total amount was due Dec. 2 or it would be sent to the Central Collections Unit.
In fiscal 2018, the MDTA referred 205,532 violations from the ICC to collections, in order to collect $9,947,144 in civil penalties and video tolls. Statewide, there were more than $27 million of late fees and tolls at CCU as of October 2018.
Henriquez contacted Carr’s office, connected him to MDTA. It settled down the fine from the initial $1,200 fine to $147 and updated his address on the account.
The ordeal has caused Henriquez to lobby for a fine reduction for all customers.
“The $5 fine is more than fair,” Henriquez said. “I truly believe you should be charged a fine if you choose not to pay a toll. Just like any bill in life, you’re responsible for it, but $50 for a 90 cent toll, I really truly feel is unfair.”
Turning to the courts
Carr has been able to help many constituents, but still wants the system changed.
“The message is that those with toll debt who are able to take time off from work and go to court (or know to contact their elected officials and/or the press) will get their late fees greatly reduced,” Carr said. “Others will have their registrations suspended or flagged, be sent to collections or have their income tax refunds garnished.”
After they see the $50 fine, many Maryland drivers opt to challenge the citation in court.
In fiscal 2018, the MDTA reported 44,433 civil penalties were contested in court. Of those, 27,199 came from the ICC.
For the same year, the Maryland Judiciary reported it heard 31,790 requests for toll violations based on a manual tabulation.
The volume is so great that cases in Montgomery County being heard last month date from 2016, and many also must be heard in Prince George’s County because the ICC spans the two. Carr said that the Prince George’s County District Court docket is less crowded, so some people receive a violation one year, have it heard in Prince George’s County in another and a third year are scheduled for Montgomery County.
“What happens when you set the fee to $50 is a lot of people contest the fee to court,” Carr said. “We have this enormous backlog of tens of thousands of people who were so angry and felt these fees were so unfair they checked the box to say I want my day in court.”
What happens in court
A review of a recent toll docket shows many people fail to appear in court on their scheduled date. Of the cases where people do appear, some are dismissed, others must pay toll violations, civil penalties, and court costs. Others get reduced civil violations.
Outside of the courtroom, some drivers have been able to get administrative relief from MDTA.
Kensington resident Alice Kessler was driving on the ICC when she drove through with her E-Z Pass transponder and paid the bill automatically with EZ Pass. Then, she got a separate video toll bill for the same transaction on Sept. 11, 2018 at 5:15:16 p.m.
The bill had boxes to check to challenge the toll administratively, such as a stolen vehicle, but none of them applied to her situation where she had actually already paid the toll. She wrote a note on the form and mailed it back, but in 30 days got a citation with the $50 fee for a toll that had only cost her $1.24 through E-ZPass.
After she posted on Facebook, Kessler said both Del. Carr, and MDTA’s then-executive director Kevin Reigrut reached out to her and Reigrut was able to get the fee lifted in 2019.
“It’s ridiculous to me that the fee is not in line with the amount of the offense, and it’s also ridiculous that you can’t dispute anything with the tolls without going through your delegate,” Kessler said.
The future of tolling
Maryland recently began cashless tolling at the Hatem Bridge over the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace and Perryville. In October, the Francis Scott Key Bridge (I-695) in Baltimore went cashless. It’s also being implemented during construction on some days for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
As these sites become busier, lawmakers expect more people to become concerned about the late fees and urge action from the General Assembly, Carr said.
“There are just a lot of ways for this system to fail and it’s not very forgiving,” Carr said. “These penalties are high, they’re predatory, they’re harmful. They’re not really serving the purpose of collecting tolls. They are just a moneymaker for MDTA.”
The MDTA is also making a big transition between vendors for the toll system, taking steps to modernize the system, including implementing two contracts approved by the Board of Public Works for a next-generation tolling system (3G) next year.
The vendor operating the tolls will switch from Conduent to Transcore for toll account management and customer service operations and Kapsch TrafficCom to replace and maintain all roadside tolling equipment.
As that system is put into place, some changes to the current billing system could make video tolls less prevalent.
On Nov. 21, the MDTA Board approved a toll modernization package that will allow for a new pay-by-plate option by June 2020. Under that method, tolls will be automatically billed to credit cards at the same rate that cash customers pay today for all facilities except the ICC and I-95 express lanes. On those roads, the customers will pay less than the video toll rate but 25% more than the E-ZPass rate.
As that phases in, many drivers may choose to use Pay by Plate instead of video tolls.
167 million toll transactions
During fiscal year 2018, MDTA processed 167 million toll transactions, 96% of which were paid through E-ZPass or cash at the time of travel. The remaining 7.1 million were processed as video toll transactions, and it’s possible those numbers will change as pay-by-plate becomes available.
Reductions through the modernization plan are expected to provide customers savings of about $28 million over five years, according to a press release.
That is the latest round of toll relief under the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan, resulting in up to $344 million in combined savings since 2014, the release states.
As for the fine reduction to $25 for the first five offenses, when the MDTA board voted to allow that in 2018, their meeting minutes said it could not be implemented at that time “due to risk and stability concerns with the current system.”
Waiting until 3G goes into place will mean the system will have been upgraded and will be operated by a different company.