One out of three motorists who uses the Intercounty Connector without an… (Mark Gail/The Washington…)
Nearly one in three motorists who use the Intercounty Connector without an E-ZPass transponder don’t pay the toll later, making Maryland’s newest and most expensive highway home to a toll violation rate four times higher than the state average.
Individual motorists racked up as much as $1,418 each in unpaid tolls after driving on the ICC, or Route 200, as many as 430 times during the first six months of this year. A rental car company owed $4,263 in ICC toll debt, while a construction company accrued $2,241 for 65 unpaid trips during that time.
The new 18.8-mile highway between Gaithersburg and Laurel has added quickly — and relatively significantly — to the state’s toll losses. The ICC accounts for 5 percent of the state’s toll revenue. However, the nearly $670,000 in unpaid tolls between January and June amounted to almost 30 percent of all tolls that went uncollected statewide during that time, according to figures obtained from the Maryland Transportation Authority.
The ICC’s problem is twofold: As an all-electronic road with no toll booths, the ICC can charge tolls only by deducting them from E-ZPass transponders or by mailing a photo of the vehicle tag along with an invoice for a higher “video toll” to the vehicle’s registered owner. However, Maryland’s tolling authority doesn’t use the kinds of enforcement measures — vehicle registration suspensions and court referrals — that tolling experts say are the most effective in getting people to pay the mailed bills.
State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s transportation subcommittee, said she plans to hold a hearing early next year on the state’s toll collection methods.
“We can’t afford to leave money on the table,” Pugh said. “The ICC was a very expensive road to build.”
As the ICC on Thursday marks the first anniversary of its full opening, its violation rate is noteworthy because it is the Washington region’s first all-electronic toll road. Made possible by new technology, all-electronic tolling is gaining popularity across the country as a way to move traffic, reduce vehicle emissions and improve safety.
Maryland officials are considering all-electronic systems for the state’s seven other toll facilities, and the tolled express lanes under construction on Interstate 95 northeast of Baltimore will be all-electronic. The new tolled express lanes that opened Saturday on the Virginia side of the Capital Beltway also have no toll booths.
Meanwhile, motorists who do follow the rules on the ICC are paying some of the highest toll rates in the country, and toll-payers throughout Maryland are subsidizing whatever ICC motorists don’t cover to pay off the road’s construction costs. The authority recently raised tolls statewide to cover construction financing costs on the $2.56 billion ICC and the $1 billion express lanes on I-95. Tolls are scheduled to increase statewide again in July, in some cases more than doubling since October 2011.
Harold Bartlett, the authority’s executive secretary, said he is “using every arrow in my quiver” to enforce toll collections by mail but said the ICC’s overall violation rate of 2.8 percent did not significantly affect the authority’s financial health. Statewide, the authority collects all but about 0.67 percent of tolls, he said.
“I don’t want to minimize anything because every dollar is important to collect, but if you did an audit . . . this does not have a ‘material impact,’ ” Bartlett said.
Even so, with ICC traffic anticipated to grow significantly — and, with it, the potential for toll cheating — the authority has proposed legislation that would impose a $50 civil citation for any video tolls not paid within 30 days.
Current state law requires a $50 civil citation immediately upon not paying at a toll booth. Instead, the authority imposes a $25 fee only after 30 days to allow vehicles to use E-ZPass lanes and the ICC without a transponder. Current law also allows the state to go after the vehicle registrations of chronic toll cheats. However, the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration hasn’t done so in more than two years, citing the fact that the authority’s $25 fee doesn’t follow state law. That has left the authority sending chronic violators a series of letters requesting payment.
The legislation proposed by the authority would allow the state to resume suspending vehicle registrations and flagging others for nonrenewal until tolls are paid and publicize the names of the worst scofflaws in a “Hall of Shame.”
Maryland’s other toll facilities will not be converted to all-electronic tolling until the authority has stiffer penalties for those who refuse to pay by mail, Bartlett said.
“I won’t make us vulnerable to that weakness until I have a way to go after them,” Bartlett said.