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Cashless tolls are a convenience to some people, but a burden to low-income drivers with no access to bank accounts.
Cashless tolls are a convenience to some people, but a burden to low-income drivers with no access to bank accounts. (File photo by Joshua McKerrow //Capital Gazette)

For the past few years, Gov. Larry Hogan has pushed his plan for cashless tolls throughout Maryland. This switch was first implemented at the Key Bridge last fall and plans are underway to do the same at the Bay Bridge by summer. It seems as if he is moving toward eliminating toll workers from every bridge in the state. I hope that is not the case.

Many people think cashless tolls are a good idea because it will mean fewer traffic jams. But this change, which takes away every driver’s choice of how to pay, will have deep, long-lasting and negative consequences on the poorest Marylanders.

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In order to use the cashless tolling system, you must first obtain an EZ Pass electronic transponder from the Maryland Transportation Authority at a cost of $7.50, which Gov. Hogan has generously waved. However to maintain an EZ Pass account, you must have more financial stability than a lot of Marylanders do. Billing for an EZ Pass is typically linked to a bank account or a credit card. If you do not have either of those, the burden to use an EZ Pass becomes unrealistically high. As an alternative, you must go to one of the few customer service centers in person to pay with cash each time you need to fund your account. Even if you have a bank account or credit card to link to that doesn’t always make it better. If you aren’t able to maintain a consistent balance, it’s very easy to miss an auto-debited payment, which can result in either overdraft fees from your bank or unreasonably high fines from EZ Pass — or both.

At cashless tolls, if your EZ Pass doesn’t work for any reason, or you choose not to have one in your vehicle, you will be charged by EZ Pass as a “video-toll.” Video-tolls are 1 1/2 times the normal toll rate, so a $4 toll becomes $6, and an $8 toll becomes $12. These video-tolls are billed by mail, as is posted at every toll plaza, but the mailing schedule is inconsistent and many bills arrive after the due date. Late toll payment accrues a fine of $50, according to the transportation authority website. That $8 toll? It’s now $62. And if a late bill has multiple video-tolls on it, you could easily end up owing EZ Pass a few hundred dollars for one bill. To add insult to injury, under current law drivers who cannot pay their accrued fines can ultimately have their registration suspended until the balance is paid. These fines and penalties amount to a travel tax on the poorest Marylanders.

Whenever an article about EZ Pass is shared on social media by local news stations or newspapers, the comment section is filled with stories about how people are abused by this program. Those commenting tell stories about owing fines of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. I myself owe nearly $500 from when my bank account was overdrawn and EZ Pass couldn’t debit its random payment. More than $400 of that is fines.

The most common complaints are: not getting a bill in the mail before late fees were added and the transponder not processing a payment even though it was placed correctly in a vehicle. This results in the driver billing the surcharged video-toll rate. The most outrageous mistake I’ve seen is someone being charged as an 18-wheel tractor trailer because cars were tailgating so close to one another that the sensor read them all as one vehicle. (You can appeal citations, but may not get a ruling in your favor).

The EZ Pass system is riddled with billing and technical problems, but instead of fixing them, the Hogan administration is hastily moving forward with its plan, which will give Conduent, the New Jersey company that manages the system for the state of Maryland, more opportunities to profit off of our state’s drivers.

The Maryland General Assembly did not have jurisdiction over this unilateral decision by the Maryland Transportation Authority, however, a bill has been introduced this year to lessen the financial burden of Marylanders who find themselves indebted to EZ Pass (H.B. 38). If passed, the late fee will go from $50 to $5 retroactively and tag suspensions for toll debt will be eliminated. Both of these changes are steps toward easing this burden on working class Marylanders. I hope our lawmakers will take this problem seriously and pass this legislation.

Cristi Demnowicz (cristi.demnowicz@gmail.com) is an advocate for the working class who lives in Middle River.

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