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Bill to put squeeze on toll evaders begins to take shape

Violators would face $50 citation, possibility of suspended registration

By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

6:32 PM EST, January 8, 2013

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The days of getting a free pass at Maryland's toll plazas might soon come to an end for scofflaws who have been cheating without fear of penalty.

The General Assembly will be asked to toughen the toll evasion law to include a $50 citation — and the possible suspension of vehicle registration.

"That's the biggest hammer we could possibly have," said Harold Bartlett, executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, the agency that runs toll bridges, tunnels and roads.

Over the past five fiscal years, the state has collected $1.5 billion in tolls but has $6.7 million in unpaid bills, said Bartlett. Much of the lost revenue bled through the E-ZPass lanes when motorists without transponders in their vehicles failed to pay bills generated by the video system that takes a picture of the license plate.

"We're talking about four-tenths of one percent," said Bartlett of the lost tolls. "I don't want to minimize any amount of money we're entitled to that we're not collecting. No amount is acceptable; however, it's very manageable at the levels we're at now."

But Del. Barbara Frush, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties and is a member of the subcommittee on motor vehicles and transportation, said the loss of revenue is "unconscionable. It's money out of the pockets of Maryland. Do you know how much $6.7 million could buy?"

And the revenue loss could worsen as the state creates more all-electronic toll roads, such as the Intercounty Connector, and added the option to roads such as the new Interstate 95 lanes north of Baltimore, Frush said.

Del. James Malone Jr., a Democrat who represents Baltimore and Howard counties and chairs the subcommittee, said he is meeting Wednesday with acting Transportation Secretary Darrell Mobley to chart a path to ensure passage.

"People want efficiencies in government, and when they see something like this they think their government is inefficient. I think we can prove we're serious by getting the best bill we can and getting it moving early," he said.

At the root of the problem is that state law does not include a definition of what constitutes a video toll violation. Worsening the situation is a 2010 legal opinion that said the MdTA lacked the statutory authority to flag the registrations of toll evaders. A police officer at a toll plaza is the only way to catch a violator.

An attempt to tighten the law last session failed because the MdTA got a late start on drafting the bill, and the effort got lost in the debates over taxes and gambling.

But as if to remind elected officials of the unresolved issue, State Police conducted a toll crackdown just before the Thanksgiving travel period at Tydings Bridge, which carries I-95 over the Susquehanna River. Last year, there were more than 20,500 toll violations at the Tydings toll plaza, representing a loss of in $740,450 in revenue.

November's three-day effort resulted in 233 citations, 141 warnings and five motorists charged with theft for intentionally evading the $6 toll.

"I think we realize what an awful thing we've done by neglecting this," said Frush. "Given that, this [bill] should be an easy sell."

Under the proposed legislation, a motorist who goes through a toll both without paying cash or using E-ZPass would get a bill for the amount due. Failure to pay within 30 days would result in a $50 civil citation. The motorist could either pay the $50 plus toll due or dispute the citation in court.

"There will be very few defenses that will be legitimate," Bartlett said. "One will be, 'I wasn't driving my car, my brother was.' Then, we go after your brother. The other one is, 'Yes, it was my car, but it was stolen,' and you show us the police report."

If a motorist fails to act, the MdTA could ask the Motor Vehicle Administration to suspend the vehicle registration or send the matter to the state's Central Collections Unit. The license plate number could be programmed into the license plate readers at toll facilities and the motorist could be arrested for operating without a registration, Bartlett said.

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said his group supports the legislation.

"People pay to use roads, and they shouldn't be shortchanged by people who don't," Anderson said. "It's an inequality that needs to be fixed."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com