Friday 28 September 2012

Maryland's toll enforcement inadequate says report

The Washington Post has reported that the state of Maryland has been inadequate in enforcing tolls against motorists who drive through free flow toll lanes without EZ Pass transponders.  The story is a damnable indictment on poor legislation and policy.  15,000 motorists owe over $500 each in unpaid tolls and nine rental car companies also owe tolls ranging from $80,000 to $209,000, with violations dating back up to eight years.  A total of nearly 650,000 vehicle owners owe the state $6.7 million in unpaid tolls and fees.   

Maryland toll roads

A table produced by the newspaper indicates violations have increased substantially in the past year, from 386,000 in 2011 to 692,000 in 2012, with a $2 million increase in the value of violations.

The Maryland Transportation Authority threatens to suspend vehicle registrations of violators, but hasn't done so for two years because it has failed to issue $50 citations which it must do in advance of suspension.

What does it do?

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.

Tony Fugett, the unit’s director, said toll violators receive two letters and an occasional automated phone call requesting payment. After that, they receive a letter once a year. The state can deduct money owed from lottery winnings, contractor payments or state income tax refunds, Fugett said. If none of those is applicable, he said, “I guess there’s nothing we’d have in our arsenal other than continuing to contact people.”

So the letters are toothless.  Yet the Maryland Transportation Authority regards this level as manageable as violations only cost 0.2% of total revenues.  Manageable until now, because why would anyone continue to pay when the state doesn't actually do anything beyond negotiate for payment?

It has become more of an issue because toll rates are planned to rise in July 2013, and those that do pay are less than happy that "being good" seems a bit unfair, when those who don't pay face few consequences.  The Authority's reason for not issuing the $50 citation is that it wants to be more "customer friendly", but at what point is being customer friendly letting violations accumulate over years whilst seeking to put up prices for those who do pay?  A quarter of unpaid tolls are out of state and the state has no reciprocal enforcement agreements with other states.

A bill had been drafted to allow the Authority to suspend registrations and to allow for interstate agreements, but it went nowhere.

The article claims that the Authority sends details of vehicle owners who incur debts of over $30 to the state debt collection unit, referring 700 to it in the 2012/2011 fiscal year. 

The article is interesting in reporting violation rates of toll roads in neighbouring states:

New Jersey 1.4%
Virginia  1.7%
Delaware 3.4%

It also describes the enforcement procedures in other states:

New Jersey has arrested some of its most flagrant toll cheats on ­theft-of-services charges and recently posted a “Wall of Shame” on the Internet listing toll scofflaws by name and home town. Three states — Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire — recently entered the first-ever reciprocity agreement to pursue vehicle registrations of out-of-state toll violators.

In Virginia, vehicle owners with three or more unpaid violations are summoned to a court hearing, where a judge may impose a civil penalty of up to $500 for multiple violations. If an owner ignores the court-ordered fines, the state puts a hold on the vehicle’s registration renewal.


The primary blame for this appears to lie in two places.  First, the state legislature which has refused to change the law to make it easier to enforce tolls and to enable more efficient enforcement of out of state violations.  Secondly, the Authority seems unwilling or unable to issue citations, and wanting to appear "customer friendly" doesn't seem like a good enough reason.  If it is legal, then the laws needs changing.
Compared to free flow tolling elsewhere, this practice simply seems absurd.  Fines should recover more than the cost of enforcement and be a deterrent, and the state should be able to recover debt like any other.   Not having a robust enforcement process will undermine future revenues as more and more realise that they are unlikely to face serious consequences if they don't pay ( the state can take the tolls and fines out of lottery winnings and tax refunds, but this affects few).  It is core to any robust electronic tolling system to have serious sanctions for not paying.   Maryland oddly seems unable and the legislature unwilling to address it.

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