Diane Rey, MarylandReporter.com
Out-of-state drivers have racked up $102 million in unpaid video tolls and fines in Maryland, and lawmakers pushing a bill through the General Assembly want them to pay up.
HB105, debated in the House of Delegates Wednesday, would enable the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) to hire an outside debt collection agency to collect the unpaid bills and associated penalties. The agency requested the bill, which would take effect June 1.
The change could mean a $20 million increase in revenue in fiscal 2020.
“These are people coming into Maryland and using our roads and not paying for them,” said the bill’s floor leader Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo, D-Montgomery, who chairs the Motor Vehicles and Transportation Subcommittee.
Fraser-Hidalgo said he was “shocked” when he learned the amount of toll debt owed to Maryland by out-of-state drivers.
According to the bill’s analysis, MDTA estimates that about 576,000 out-of-state drivers owe MDTA outstanding tolls and civil penalties totaling $102 million.
“Some violators have $20,000” in unpaid tolls and fines, said Fraser-Hidalgo. He said the largest group of offenders are from Virginia.
Currently, the state’s Central Collection Unit (CCU) under the Department of Budget and Management is responsible for going after that money, but on average, the CCU is only able to collect about $1.3 million in tolls and penalties annually from out-of-state drivers.
“Their ability to collect this debt is very, very limited,” said Fraser-Hidalgo in the floor debate. For in-state drivers, MDTA has tools such as not renewing or suspending vehicle registration, but Maryland can’t do that with a driver from Pennsylvania, for example.
Concerns about Beltway tolls
Del. Alfred Carr Jr., also a Democrat from Montgomery County, tried Wednesday to “special order” or hold over the bill for another day, but his motion, as well as his amendment to “sunset” the bill after seven months, failed.
Carr said he was concerned that outsourcing the debt collection from the CCU to a private company would be “taking work away from Marylanders.”
In an interview afterward, Carr said that money collected from the unpaid tolls and fines would be a “piggybank” for the controversial managed toll lanes project, a public-private partnership under study that would add toll lanes on the Maryland side of the Capital Beltway, which runs through his district. High occupancy toll lanes have already been added to the Virginia side of the beltway.
“My constituents hate the (managed lanes) project,” he said. “I don’t want them (MDTA) to take a shortcut and get this windfall.”
He said adding private toll lanes on the beltway in Montgomery County would take land away from people’s backyards, schools, parks and hospitals.
“There’s not enough room to add lanes to the beltway,” Carr said.
Instead of passing the bill, he said Maryland should establish reciprocity agreements with neighboring states to collect unpaid tolls and fines.
“What they’re seeking with this bill conflicts with that,” he said.
Fraser-Hidalgo said with reciprocity, Marylanders who fail to pay their tolls in neighboring states would be subject to the laws of Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware, which are sometimes harsher than Maryland’s.
“Some of those states imprison people” for toll violations, he said.
Currently in Maryland, a motor vehicle incurs a video toll when the vehicle passes through an MDTA toll facility, such as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge or the all-electronic Intercounty Connector, but does not pay the toll using cash or an E-ZPass. The registered owner has 30 days to pay the toll or face a $50 fine. The owner may pay the citation and penalty or contest the citation in District Court.
Under the bill’s fiscal summary, state revenue is estimated to increase by at least $18.5 million in fiscal year 2020 if the bill passes and, while no firm figures are listed, revenues are expected to “increase significantly in future fiscal years,” depending on the collection rate of the chosen debt collection company.
The bill analysis notes that MDTA is seeking a contract with a private collection company that
would essentially buy the state’s outstanding tolls up front, which would amount to about $20 million. The state would also get a percentage of the fines collected.
A final vote on the bill is expected later this week.