Thousands and thousands of motorists will be paying millions and millions of dollars in highway tolls to get to Grandma's house in time for Thanksgiving, but Eric Gregory is no longer one of them. He sold his car a while ago. He's out of the driving-and-toll-paying life.
And he's out of the driving-and-toll-paying life because he stopped paying his tolls.
I'll explain in a minute, but before I do, a disclosure: I know about Gregory's story only because he contacted me for help. The guy believed he was being unfairly treated by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which oversees our toll facilities, so he wrote a letter, asking me to intervene in what he described as a case of "highway robbery."
I spoke to him and looked into his problem — $720 in unpaid E-ZPass tolls and late charges, plus $13,000 in administrative fees over a two-year period.
The numbers are staggering. But I can't say I'm terribly sympathetic. As one who pays these tolls — along with just about 99 percent of all E-ZPass subscribers — I'm not about to take up for someone who doesn't.
I think it's best that we just look at this as a teachable moment and thank Eric Gregory for making it possible.
Here's what happened:
Three years ago, Gregory was experiencing financial stress. His hours had been cut at work. His girlfriend had a high-risk pregnancy, and she had to make frequent visits to the Hopkins Bayview medical campus. Gregory and his girlfriend lived in Glen Burnie. The quickest way to get there was through the Harbor Tunnel. Several times, Gregory says, he blew through the toll lanes without paying.
He figured he'd pay the tolls and late fees later on, when he had more money.
But he apparently underestimated his liability. If you don't pay E-ZPass tolls, in time additional late charges and administrative fees are added. Gregory says his bill hit $13,000. The MdTA, he adds, went after his state income tax refunds and got about $4,600 of that total.
In addition, he says, his car registration was suspended by the Motor Vehicle Administration, apparently at the behest of the MdTA, because of his debts.
I couldn't confirm any of this with the MdTA. A spokesman said electronic toll collection records are protected by law. However, Rebecca Freeberger of the authority's communications office said it would have been possible for a motorist to incur multiple administrative fees if he continued to run E-ZPass or "video toll" lanes.
But, she was quick to point out, a recent change in state law would have made it harder for him to ever rack up such a big fee.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly decided to do something about the estimated 650,000 vehicle owners who owed the state $6.7 million in unpaid tolls dating back five years. After The Washington Post pointed this out, legislators voted to give the MdTA more power to crack down on toll cheats.
Now the MdTA can swiftly issue civil citations and suspend the registrations of scofflaws who ignore their bills. The new law, which took effect July 1, allows the MdTA to "video toll" any vehicle and send the bill to the registered owner. If the bill isn't paid within 30 days, the agency issues a civil citation and a $50 fine for each violation. If that doesn't get the offender's attention, suspension of the vehicle's registration follows.
Here's the part most relevant to Eric Gregory: The new law gave anyone with unpaid tolls before July 1 an opportunity to pay their balances without having to pay the administrative fees.
I passed along Gregory's phone number to the MdTA. A member of the MdTA's E-ZPass operations team contacted him Monday morning.
Monday afternoon, Gregory called me, excited.
"What did you do?" he asked. "The MdTA called and said they are wiping away the $13,000 in fees."
As I just explained, I didn't do anything, the General Assembly did. The MdTA stopped imposing administrative fees, and now toll-running is handled with citations, fines and suspensions.
The MdTA won't be going after Gregory for the remainder of those fees, just the tolls he owes. I think this man has something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
But when I reached him Monday, he said: "I won't believe it until I get it in writing."
He's not satisfied. The state garnished his tax refunds. The state suspended his car registration. He doesn't have the car anymore. "I couldn't afford to keep it in storage, so I sold it," he says.
And he says he's had to spend $18,000 on buses and cabs to and from Glen Burnie and his job in Baltimore.
I told him he could have avoided all these headaches by paying the tolls three years ago — or by avoiding them altogether. He could have driven from Glen Burnie through downtown Baltimore then out Eastern Avenue to Bayview on the southeastern edge of the city.
"That would have cost me more in gas money," he said.
I'm done. Travel safely, friends. And pay your tolls.