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The Maryland Transportation Authority's ashless toll collection on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on U.S. 40 in Harford and Cecil counties. When E-ZPass users did what they were supposed to do - drive briskly through the tolls - they received warning letters from the state.
The Maryland Transportation Authority's ashless toll collection on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge on U.S. 40 in Harford and Cecil counties. When E-ZPass users did what they were supposed to do - drive briskly through the tolls - they received warning letters from the state. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun)

Cashless tolling at the Francis Scott Key and Thomas J. Hatem Memorial bridges was touted by Maryland transportation officials in April as an innovation that would reduce traffic backups by removing the need to stop at toll plazas, instead allowing electronic payment “at highway speeds."

But when the Maryland Transportation Authority debuted the technology last month at the Hatem Bridge, which carries U.S. 40 over the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace and Perryville, the agency neglected to shut off an automated system that sent warnings to drivers, who would have been considered speeding at the old tolls.

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As a result, the state spent more than $20,000 to mail about 22,000 letters to Hatem Bridge drivers in the past 30 days, warning them that they had been caught speeding on the bridge — and that their E-ZPass accounts could be suspended for two months if they received another violation in the next six months.

That isn’t true. The notice letters were mailed to drivers in error, and those who have received them can ignore them, said Kelly Melhem, a Maryland Transportation Authority spokeswoman. The issue began when the cashless tolls opened Oct. 16 and was corrected in early November.

“We do apologize for any inconvenience,” she said.

The agency has been sending the warnings to drivers speeding at toll facilities since 2014, but it has never suspended an E-ZPass account for speeding violations, Melhem said.

The notices “serve as a deterrent and a reminder for our customers regarding traffic safety and the safety of our toll collectors,” according to the MDTA.

Kim Clark said she was infuriated after receiving about 10 of the letters in the span of two days. Two of them, dated Oct. 22 and Oct. 28, cited her for driving 51 mph. The speed limit at the Hatem and Key bridges is 45 mph.

Clark, who lives in Perryville and commutes across the bridge to Aberdeen daily, initially worried she had unknowingly forfeited her E-ZPass, which allows her and her husband unlimited Hatem Bridge crossings for $20 a year. Drivers crossing the bridge eastbound are otherwise charged $8 per crossing.

“That would cost hundreds, if not $1,000, over six months,” she said.

The notion that two speeding violations would warrant a suspended E-ZPass account is “ridiculous,” Clark said.

Stephen Slotnick, who lives in North East in Cecil County, got two of the erroneous notices — his first MDTA speed warnings in eight years of daily commuting across the bridge to his job in Aberdeen.

Slotnick wondered where the agency was clocking the speeds, because it cited him for driving 61 mph, which he didn’t think was safely possible to do through the old toll booths, which are still in the process of being removed.

“You can’t go through the toll booth at 61 mph,” he said. “I don’t know where they’re taking the speed from.”

The agency posted an advisory to drivers about the problem on Facebook, which prompted hundreds of shares and comments.

Given how many letters the MDTA sent out, Slotnick said he thinks that is not enough.

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“I don’t think I’ve seen anything else," he said. “Unless you were following them [on Facebook] you wouldn’t have known. They should probably issue some sort of letter or something going back and saying ‘Hey, don’t worry about it. We apologize it happened.’”

John Grubb, a real estate agent who lives in Bel Air, said he faced “a lot of heat” from his wife, Kim, over the warnings.

Kim Grubb said she had good reason to worry: He had received three in a row.

“We heavily rely on our E-ZPass," she said. "When it sends you a threatening letter that you’re going to lose it ... that’s concerning.”

He went to the E-ZPass Customer Service Center and had officials issue him a written document acknowledging the issue and voiding the warnings.

That shouldn’t have been necessary, Kim Grubb said.

“If they can send those letters out that quick, they can absolutely send another letter out saying, ‘This was a mistake,’” she said.

Anyone with further questions can call the MDTA’s customer service line at 1-888-321-6824 or visit the E-ZPass Maryland Customer Service Center locations.

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