Maryland Transportation Authority’s board voted Thursday to temporarily stop charging late fees on video toll bills to alleviate stress from customers who owe outstanding toll fees and are unable to connect by phone with understaffed customer service representatives.
A “customer assistance plan” gives customers a nine-month grace period to pay overdue video tolls bills without being charged an additional $25 late fee for every unpaid toll. The plan will also waive pending late fees on outstanding toll bills if customers pay the full amounts of their toll transactions by the end of the grace period.
William Pines, acting executive director for MDTA, emphasized that the program should be considered a temporary payment plan and not a forgiveness program that eliminates outstanding bills. Customers are still required to pay their toll fees, he said.
The customer assistance plan started Thursday and ends Nov. 30. MDTA will again refer unpaid toll bills and late fees to the Motor Vehicle Administration’s central collection unit starting Dec. 1. The MVA can suspend a person’s vehicle registration if they have more than $1,000 in unpaid tolls and late fees.
Maryland’s road tolls switched quickly to electronic-only tolling during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. MDTA paused sending bills for video tolls while transitioning to a new toll vendor and continued to postpone collecting payments for a year during the public health emergency.
But those decisions have created chaos for customers who are now being charged hundreds of dollars at once, with additional $25 late fees for unpaid bills. Customers have complained of limited success reaching an employee to dispute charges because customer service phone lines are tied up.
As part of the plan approved by the transit authority board, MDTA will use additional funds to hire subcontractors to make more representatives available to customers. Callers have previously been placed on hourslong waits to speak with someone about their bills.
Gov. Larry Hogan this month called the backlogged bills “a huge problem” and asked MDTA to provide leniency during the transition from customers not being charged for video tolls for over a year to suddenly being billed all at once.
“The deferral of toll bills during the pandemic protected Marylanders from hardship during one of the greatest health and economic emergencies of our lifetimes, but we realize paying off those bills now can be a challenge for many families,” James Ports Jr., Maryland transportation secretary and MDTA board chairman, said in a statement.
A number of bills have been proposed in the General Assembly this session that deal with Marylanders’ toll debt. State Del. Alfred Carr Jr. and state Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher introduced bills that would prohibit the Motor Vehicle Administration from suspending motor vehicle registration as a penalty for toll violations. State Del. Linda Foley proposed a bill to allow E-ZPass customers to dispute any fee charged to their accounts within three years after a fee is posted.
EZPass holders have also complained of steep bills due to incorrect charges or problems with faulty transponders. More than 26,000 people have signed a petition urging Hogan to create a task force to pause MDTA’s fines while investigating the issues related to E-ZPass video tolls.
Ports offered several reasons for E-ZPass woes: The video tolls are misreading E-ZPass transponders, customers’ accounts are linked to expired credit cards, accounts that are not set up for auto-replenishment might run out of funds, the wrong license plate might be registered to an E-ZPass transponder, or a customer is not properly mounting their transponder in their car.
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Since October 2020, when MDTA started mailing backlogged bills from March, people experiencing problems have had trouble resolving them over the phone or by online chat because wait times are too long, Pines said. The call center recently lost 100 call center employees in four months, dropping from 160 employees in April 2021 to 60 employees in August.
“It’s been a really tough battle,” Pines said during the board meeting. He attributed the drop in employees to the nationwide resignation trend and cited a general shortage of state workers.
Ragina Ali, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, an advocacy group for Maryland motorists, said MDTA’s waiver plan is a hopeful relief to the “nightmare” many tolls customers are experiencing.
“While the deferral of tolls during the pandemic may have been well-intended to provide relief for Maryland motorists during a challenging time, the unexpected bills and fees that have mounted, for many has created a hardship within itself,” Ali said in a statement. “We are also hopeful that additional staff will enable Marylanders to address their issues in a timely manner, without them having to wait long hours on the phone for a resolution.”
Late fees that have already been paid will not be reimbursed, MDTA said. Late fees will be waived for each paid toll, but there may be a delay in reflecting the waiver on an online account until the payment is processed.
MDTA will continue to send customers their toll fees that have been backlogged by the pandemic into summer. If customers do not pay the total amount they owe by the end of the grace period, their late fees will not be waived.
People with unpaid video tolls can check their accounts online at csc.driveezmd.com/pay-tolls-now and in person at one of five customer service centers. The locations of those centers can be found at driveezmd.com/contact-us. Account totals can also be checked by calling 1-866-320-9995; select Option 1 for Notice of Toll Due then enter the mailing number on the notice when prompted.