Maryland transportation officials say they are stepping up efforts to collect more than $6 million in tolls that have gone unpaid in the past five years, including hundreds of thousands owed by car rental companies that have ignored the state's bills.
In response to questioning by Comptroller Peter Franchot, Acting Transportation Secretary Darrell B. Mobley pledged Wednesday to use all means at the disposal of the Maryland Transportation Authority to enforce its tolls.
Franchot, speaking at a meeting of the Board of Public Works, pressed Mobley about a report in The Washington Post that the authority has been failing to collect tolls from many motorists who go through its toll turnstiles without E-ZPass transponders.
When drivers without transponders use an E-Zpass lane, a video camera photographs their license plates and they are sent a bill for the toll and a transaction fee. The Post reported that the toll authority has been allowing scofflaws to run up hefty amounts of unpaid tolls without taking action to enforce collection.
"I don't think it's a small amount of money. It's a significant amount of money and a question of fairness to people who do pay the tolls," Franchot said.
Mobley, who is also acting chairman of the authority, said that, among other things, the agency is consulting with the Central Collections Unit — the state's bill collector — on what other steps can be taken.
Sensitivity about tolls has been heightened in Maryland by a record-high round of toll increases last year that raised the cost of using most of the authority's facilities, including the three Baltimore Harbor crossings, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway and the Bay Bridge. Another round of increases is scheduled to take effect next year.
The Post reported, and the authority confirmed, that some of the biggest toll evaders were car rental companies. The newspaper pointed to the case of one rental company that owed the state almost $209,000 despite having received nearly 7,000 toll collection letters over the past four years.
The authority declined to release the name of that company, or eight others that owe between $80,000 and $200,000, saying it was not sure it had the legal right to do so. The agency confirmed the Post's report that about 15,000 individuals owe more than $500 as well.
Franchot, the chief tax collector in Maryland, expressed bewilderment that the authority's letters have been so ineffective in prompting those who owe tolls to pay up.
"I'm sensitive to the impact of the tax man sending the letter," he said. "Nobody drops our letters in the trash bin, but apparently they've been doing that to the toll authority."
Cheryl Sparks, a spokeswoman for the authority, said the problem is that the law doesn't allow the authority to use a suspension of registration by the Motor Vehicle Administration — the tool the state uses to collect obligations from speeding penalties to parking fines to child support payments — to enforce video tolling.
The authority formerly flagged the registrations of toll delinquents but stopped doing so after March 2010, when it discovered it did not have the statutory authority to do so, Sparks said.
The use of video tolling has increased significantly since the authority opened the first section of the Inter-County Connector last year. The toll road between Prince George's and Montgomery counties, also known as Maryland Route 200, has no toll booths and relies exclusively on E-Zpass and cameras to collect tolls. Sparks said about $1 million of the uncollected tolls are from the ICC.
Since the ICC has opened, the state has expanded the use of video tolling to all of its other facilities.
Sparks said the agency in the coming legislative session will seek the authority to block the registration of toll scofflaws.
Del. James Malone, chairman of the House subcommittee that handles motor vehicle legislation, said his panel is already working on a bill.
"We will address it ASAP as soon as we get into session in January," said Malone, who represents Baltimore and Howard counties.
Sparks said that in the meantime, the authority will explore other measures, including reporting motorists with unpaid tolls to credit-scoring agencies and publishing a list of toll scofflaws.