$100 million in annual toll fines put citizens on road to ‘toll bankruptcy’

By Daniel Menefee
For Maryland Reporter

Excessive penalties and poor customer service at the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system have put some Marylanders on the path to “toll bankruptcy,” Sen. Roger Manno told the Senate Finance Committee last week.

“Folks [are] exasperated because they’ve been caught in a system that is not working,” Manno said.

Broad enforcement powers enacted in 2013 to address toll violations have led to wage attachments, financial hardship and non-renewal of vehicle registrations at MVA, witnesses testified.

“The penalty structure that we set several years ago in the General Assembly was not intended to be punitive,” Manno said. “It was not intended to strip people of their rights and their assets.”

But the head of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the toll facilities, told the senators that only a tiny percentage of drivers have been affected.

“I don’t want to minimize the pain that certain customers have gone through, but running the numbers only .001% wound up in a circumstance” like this, said Kevin Reigrut, MDTA’s new executive director. He said 99.3% of Maryland toll customers are paying their tolls without incident.

“MDTA has no intention of wanting to be in the bill collection business,” Reigrut said. He said the 2013 law gave MDTA the power to address extraordinary circumstances — but the agency has to hear about them.

Correction: In the past two years, the state assessed collected $223 million in toll fines and collected $34 million.

Biggest problems at ICC

Almost all the citizens who testified for the bill had problems with the InterCounty Connector, Route 200, the state’s all-electronic video toll road connecting Gaithersburg and Laurel. The ICC uses video snapshots of license plates to bill commuters who don’t subscribe to E-ZPass or when subscribers’ transponders fail to register at any of eight tolling gantries along the route.

Manno’s office has been inundated with pleas to help settle minor toll violations that snowballed into “tens of thousands of dollars” in penalties – after citizens failed get a resolution from E-Z Pass or MDTA. Manno’s District 19 in Montgomery County includes part of the ICC.

“The myriad of problems that they encountered with MDTA steered them toward a path of accruing civil penalties and exorbitant debt: late bill notices in the mail, lost checks, and inconsistent and confusing customer service,” said Manno in written testimony.

The 2013 law gave MDTA the power to block registrations renewals and refer past due accounts to the state’s Central Collection Unit.

A $50 fine kicks in for each violation not paid after 45 days. After an additional 45 days the debt is transferred to CCU where a 17% fee is tacked on.

Manno is sponsoring a bill, SB139, co-sponsored by most of the Montgomery County’s Democratic senators and two Republicans, to reduce the $50 fine per violation to 25% of the original toll — and prohibit MDTA from referring delinquent accounts to CCU.

“If it’s a two-dollar toll the penalty would be 50 cents,” Manno said.

Of the 5.1 million violations in 2016, 4.7 million occurred on the ICC, according to a legislative analysis.

Motorists testify on ‘toll hell’

Manno told committee members that technical problems with transponders and credit card processing mistakes started motorists on a path to “toll hell.” Often motorists were unaware of any problems while they continued to accrue additional tolls and penalties.

After an expired credit card prevented replenishment of her E-ZPass account, Deborah Liverpool of Silver Spring said 17 tolls of less than $3 each swelled to almost $1,000 in fines in one month.

She said penalties had already accrued before she was able to provide new credit card information.

Stephanie Grogoza of Rockville said her elderly parents received a collection notice of $300 for less than $9 in tolls incurred on the ICC. Grogoza said her parents, one retired Navy and the other a bank auditor, never received the initial bill.

“If they got a bill they would have paid it,” she said. “They play by the rules.”

John McNamara, a retired Foreign Service officer from Derwood, said he was billed twice for the same trip on the ICC, once on his E-ZPass account and later with a video toll he received by mail. He said E-ZPass refused to accept proof of the mistake by email. He was told he had to send a fax or visit a service center.

In written testimony, the Maryland Motor Truck Association said a member’s registration renewal was blocked due to $23,000 in tolls and fines that had accumulated since 2008.

Notices were sent to the wrong mailing address even though MVA records were correct.

“MDTA mailed these notices of tolls due to an address this company has not occupied for many years,” said Louis Campion of the truck association. “He is not a toll avoider. His E-ZPass account has never been negative and last year [he] paid $50,000 in tolls.”

Jen Diamond, of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition, a group that advocates for low income Marylanders said the 2013 law was a “classic case of unintended consequences” and a “draconian approach to funding Maryland’s infrastructure.”

“We’ve heard horror stories of clients forced to file for bankruptcy in order to address a few unpaid E-ZPass tolls,” Diamond said.

Four notices sent

MDTA chief Reigrut said that no fewer than four notifications are sent to the vehicle owner before the violations are sent to CCU

“For the 99.3% of our customers who are paying as expected, we have an obligation to ensure that we are able to collect the tolls that are due,” Reigrut said.

He said his agency has the power to recall accounts from CCU only if a mistake was made by MDTA or E-ZPass

“This is a punitive, if not predatory, collections process by a government against its people,” Manno said in an interview Monday. “Tell me where else in commerce in the real world where a penalty scheme like this exists.”

“There are 340,000 Marylanders whose accounts have been forwarded to CCU,” Manno said. “That’s one in every 18 Marylanders in collection at CCU for toll violations.”

Toll bonds could see downgrade

All MDTA toll-backed revenue bonds are subject to trust agreements that require revenues be maintained at certain levels. Historically, Maryland has enjoyed stellar bond ratings because MDTA’s board has the authority to set toll rates without legislative interference.

“The bill necessitates a change to the trust agreement with MDTA’s bondholders and/or prompts a reduction in MDTA’s bond ratings,” according to the fiscal note.

“Bills like SB139 could be problematic for our Trust Agreement,” said Cheryl Sparks, communications director for MDTA. “It could compromise our statutory independence and have a negative effect on the MDTA credit worthiness and lead to higher bond/loan rates.”

In 2015 and 2016 the state collected $91 million and $132 million respectively in toll fines.

Collections unit wants to place liens

While Manno wants to take accounts away from CCU, the state government collection agency now wants the power to file property liens as proposed in HB104, a Department of Budget and Management bill aimed at quicker collections.

CCU Director Anthony Fuegett said the agency’s primary tool of wage garnishments was time consuming, taking up to three years.

“We don’t garnish enough people,” Fuegett told the House Appropriations Committee Jan. 31, referring to findings in two years of legislative audits.

Jesse Lawyer, deputy director of CCU told the committee that E-ZPass account “are a large part of our portfolio.To date we’ve brought on 1.9 million accounts.” Each represents a single violation.

Dan Menefee can be reached at dcmenefee@atlanticbb.net