Tough-talking lawmakers need to follow with action
When the Maryland Transportation Authority approved a plan in September 2011 to raise rates on most of the state’s toll bridges, tunnels and highways, it said the hike would generate about $90 million in its first full year to pay “significant debt” for rehabilitating the state’s aging infrastructure. Beyond that, money was needed to pay down construction debt on the new, $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector and for express toll lanes on Interstate 95 near Baltimore.
What the MDTA didn’t acknowledge or foresee was that a substantial number of motorists were cheating the state out of $6.7 million in unpaid tolls during the past five years. As a story in The Washington Post last week mentioned, about 650,000 vehicle owners haven’t paid tolls at one time or another, with 15,000 in arrears for more than $500 each. One rental-car company has garnered almost $209,000 in unpaid tolls and penalties.
Part of the problem, Gazette staff writer Daniel Leaderman noted in a follow-up story, is “video tolling.” Under this burgeoning practice, drivers without EZPass devices use the electronic toll lanes, where their license plates are recorded so a toll bill, including a 50 percent penalty, can be mailed to them.
Under state law, scofflaws who don’t pay the tolls are supposed to receive a $50 citation. But to give video tollers sufficient time to pay, the authority hasn’t been issuing the citations. And, a citation is needed to trigger the next step — flagging a violator’s vehicle registration for nonrenewal. Transportation officials admit that the threat of invalidating a vehicle’s registration seems to be the main deterrent to the scofflaws.
A bill proposed by the MDTA this year to allow the Motor Vehicle Administration to suspend the vehicle registration of toll cheaters died in committee.
State lawmakers quoted expressed outrage at the amount of money attached to the dirty work of toll cheaters. Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Dist. 40) of Baltimore, who chairs a transportation subcommittee, anticipates that members of her panel will meet to discuss the situation before the next session of the General Assembly in January. And Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Dist. 22) of Berwyn Heights, who chairs a House subcommittee that handles transportation matters, said state law needs to account for video tolling; she also vowed to address the issue with colleagues.
If lawmakers are seeking role models to address the issue, they can look no further than some nearby states. As the Post story noted, vehicle owners in Virginia who accumulate three or more unpaid citations end up in a court hearing, where a judge can fine them up to $500. If the fines are ignored, the registration’s renewal can be held up.
And in New Jersey, authorities have been arresting the worst offenders and posting on the Internet the names and hometowns of toll cheaters.
The biggest reason for Maryland to address the issue firmly is that this is not a victimless crime. As is often the case, law-abiding toll payers and taxpayers ultimately make up the difference in lost revenue. They have a right to be angry with their fellow motorists who choose to ignore the tolls and to expect their elected officials to act. The state must be more aggressive in tracking down the violators and making them pay.