Drivers whiz through toll booths at the Bay Bridge in Annapolis, Md. The… (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON…)
Thousands of vehicles are repeatedly blowing through Maryland E-ZPass lanes without an E-ZPass transponder, and the state is doing little to collect the millions of dollars in unpaid tolls.
One car-rental company owes the state nearly $209,000 in unpaid tolls and penalties despite having received nearly 7,000 letters over four years, according to state figures. Eight other rental companies owe between $80,000 and $200,000 each, with some violations dating back eight years.
Individual vehicle owners aren’t paying up, either. About 15,000 owe more than $500 each.
More than a few might have caught on to the fact that the letters sent by the state are paper tigers.
Pay up, the Maryland Transportation Authority says, or the vehicle’s registration could be suspended. But the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration hasn’t suspended a vehicle registration for nonpayment of tolls in more than two years. That’s because the authority hasn’t been hitting violators with a $50 citation, which it has to do by law if it wants the MVA to suspend registrations.
Instead, the authority, which operates the state’s eight toll facilities, mails vehicle owners a “notice of toll due.” After 30 days of nonpayment, the authority tacks on a $25 fee. Repeat violators are referred to the state’s central collection unit, which continues to send periodic letters requesting payment. But unlike its practice with other types of debt owed to the state, the unit never reports chronic toll violators to credit-rating agencies.
Del. Stephen W. Lafferty (D-Baltimore County) said he was “incredulous and livid” when he heard about the issue during a brief legislative hearing this spring. That law-abiding motorists have been paying higher tolls since November only added to his outrage, he said. “Someone owes $200,000, and you’re not going after these people?” Lafferty said. “Those people are taking advantage of the state.”
In total, nearly 650,000 vehicle owners owe about $6.7 million in unpaid tolls dating back five years, according to the authority.
Harold Bartlett, the authority’s executive secretary, said losses so far from unpaid tolls are “very manageable” as a portion of overall revenue and have not affected the authority’s ability to maintain or build toll facilities.
“Obviously, every single dollar is important to us, so we don’t take any comfort in saying it’s a small number,” Bartlett said. “We’re continuing to pursue avenues to get those numbers down.”
Authority officials said they are negotiating with the car-rental companies that owe the most. The agency, citing privacy protections in Maryland’s electronic tolling law, denied a public-records request from The Washington Post for the database that includes the names of the rental companies and other vehicle owners who owe money.
Losses from unpaid tolls amount to a minuscule share of the authority’s revenue, but the debt has grown quickly in recent years. In fiscal 2008, those annual losses amounted to $555,000, or two-tenths of 1 percent of that year’s toll revenue, according to the agency’s figures. Three years later, violators racked up $1.18 million in tolls owed, almost four-tenths of 1 percent of annual toll income.
Key source of funding
The losses have mounted as Maryland and governments across the country are increasingly turning to toll revenue to finance transportation construction. The traditional source of such funding — the gas tax — hasn’t kept pace with infrastructure needs, state officials say, and efforts to raise it have failed amid anti-tax sentiments and gasoline price spikes.
Anticipated toll revenue was a critical source of funding for several of the area’s newest transportation projects, including the recently opened $2.56 billion Intercounty Connector in the Maryland suburbs and the $5.6 billion Metrorail Silver Line extension under construction in Northern Virginia.
“There are so few transportation dollars for maintenance and construction of new roads that you can’t afford to give people a free ride,” said PJ Wilkins, executive director of the E-ZPass Group, which coordinates E-ZPass operations among 14 states.
Meanwhile, technology is making it easier to cheat. The advent of E-ZPass systems in the 1990s eliminated the need for motorists with transponders — or without them — to stop at manned tollbooths or gates. The issue sparked attention locally in 2005 when the Virginia Department of Transportation acknowledged that, for a decade, it had no cameras to catch scofflaws passing through electronic toll lanes on the Dulles Toll Road. Cameras were installed a year later.
Complicating collection efforts in Maryland is the fact that the state recently began using “video tolling.” Vehicles may use E-ZPass lanes without a transponder, and the owner is mailed a photograph of the vehicle tag along with a “notice of toll due” for a higher toll rate.