Maryland legislative auditors found that glitches in the cashless tolling infrastructure implemented at all of the state’s bridges, tunnels and express lanes overbilled motorists thousands of dollars and, in some cases, failed to identify the issues and reimburse customers promptly.
Released Sept. 13, the Office of Legislative Audit’s report on the Maryland Transportation Authority comes about a year after the state announced that it permanently ceased cash toll collections, which had been put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic, and moved to fully electronic tolling systems.
“We received allegations on our fraud, waste, and abuse hotline alleging that MDTA was not taking sufficient action to detect and address the overbilling of customers for electronic tolling due to issues with its new toll equipment,” Legislative Auditor Gregory Hook wrote in a letter to the legislature’s Joint Audit and Evaluation Committee.
“Our audit disclosed that MDTA was inconsistent in its actions related to the impact of issues with its electronic toll collection system on its customers and potential customer overbillings,” Hook’s letter continued.
Sen. Clarence Lam, a Democrat who chairs the General Assembly’s join audit committee, expressed concerns about the audit’s findings, saying they “seem to reflect an agency’s attitude that, in some ways, they just don’t care” despite the transit authority counting customer service as a priority.
“The legislative audit highlighted some key deficiencies in their abilities to properly bill Marylanders,” Lam said in an interview. “Had it not been for this audit, it seems like this agency would’ve just tossed it under the rug.”
The report identified tolling issues at the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Francis Scott Key Bridge, the Intercounty Connector in Montgomery County and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge in Cecil County.
Problems included electronic tolls incorrectly counting vehicle axles and thus overcharging motorists, customers billed twice for passing a toll once and overbilling for some with commuter plans, according to the report. Meanwhile, transit officials’ responses varied for the incidents, and it’s possible the issues could be more widespread, auditors found.
They were aware of some issues but not aware of others exposed by the audit, according to the report. In other instances officials corrected equipment malfunctions but neglected to investigate the extent to which those issues affected customers. Meanwhile, one time they proactively performed a review of commuter plans and credited motorists an average of $11.80 for being overbilled.
The transit agency conceded “that in certain limited circumstances, customers were charged an incorrect toll rate” but rejected that the issue could be systemic.
“Although hardware or software problems may occur on occasion, MDTA’s tolling system has a robust real-time monitoring system that alerts to anomalies so that issues can be quickly identified and corrected to minimize any potential errors,” transit officials wrote in a response to the audit, which was first reported by WBAL TV.
“MDTA maintains a robust, statistical sampling-based quality assurance and quality control program, including multiple layers of verification, automated alerts, business intelligence analytics, and system safety nets to achieve the highest degree of accuracy from its tolling system,” transit officials wrote.
Lam was not satisfied with the agency’s response. He said the problems exposed by the audit could be just the tip of the iceberg considering that the audit covered May 2016 to March 2020, before Maryland sped up its move to completely electronic tolling. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan announced that the state had transitioned permanently to cashless tolling Aug. 6, 2020.
“The auditors did snapshots in time and they found all these problems,” Lam said. “It’s probably evidence of larger, systemic problems at MDTA that it’s not clear they’re willing to address.”
The agency highlighted that the COVID-19 crisis prompted it to expedite its transition to cashless tolling, which required replacing toll equipment at 131 locations, and said it processed some 158 million transactions during the audit period. They said they provided auditors with an analysis of four days at two facilities where a tiny fraction of the more than 230,000 transactions were overcharged.
Lam said it might be necessary for another audit that highlights the rollout of cashless tolls.
“I think there’s an open question how well they rolled out their video tolling in an admittedly rushed fashion with the challenges of the pandemic,” he said.
In 2019, the MDTA conducted an investigation of the tolls at the Fort McHenry Tunnel, finding incorrect axle counts led to overbillings, according to the audit report. Auditors wrote that MDTA provided documentation that it fixed the tolling equipment but couldn’t provide documents showing it looked into customer impact.
MDTA investigated further after auditors raised concerns in April 2021, revealing faulty equipment at one of the 22 lanes, according to the report. About 7,700 customers were overbilled $84,000, an average of $11 per customer.
Auditors also found motorists were billed twice on days in January, March, August and September of 2020, which the MDTA was not aware of. The MDTA told auditors customers were overbilled, but did not say by how much or research other time periods, auditors wrote.
At the Key Bridge, customers were billed twice at times in April and May of 2020 because cameras misread vehicles. The report said some motorists were charged the $3 fee for a two-axle vehicle, like a sedan, and the $24 fee for a five-axle vehicle, which could be a truck with one or two trailers.
The MDTA was not aware of the issue at the bridge and conceded that some people were overbilled but did not look into the issue further, the auditors wrote.
Transit officials pledged to correct the issues in the attached agency response.
“The MDTA has an established process to ensure significant tolling issues are identified, stopped, and fixed; customer accounts that are negatively impacted are credited; and lost revenue is recovered from MDTA’s contractors. The MDTA will formalize the process in documented procedures,” the officials wrote.
Hook’s letter acknowledged the transit agency’s cooperation and credited the Maryland Department of Transportation and transit administration’s “willingness to address the audit issues and implement appropriate corrective actions.”