BALTIMORE — With cashless tolling about to begin on the Hatem Bridge, a group of 35 members of the Maryland General Assembly — nine senators and 26 delegates — have asked the executive director of the Maryland Transportation Authority to pull the brakes on the idea until the cost to commuters can be addressed.
Al Carr, the delegate representing District 18 in Montgomery County, said a letter addressed to Jim Ports has been entered into the public comments of hearing held about the cashless tolling regulations. That comment period ended Thursday. A public hearing was held Sept. 3 at Perryville High School to gather comment on the plan that would change tolling but also save the state $28 million over five years.
“Our policies for the cashless tolling are broken,” Carr said Friday. He said the legislators are concerned about what they feel are exorbitant costs for penalties, the lack of proper appeals processes and the backlog the process is causing the court system.
A resident of the metro area, Carr has experience with tolls and regularly travels the Inter County Connector, or ICC, Maryland’s first cashless toll road.
“As you drive through it takes a picture of your license plate,” he said of the technology in place. If there is no transponder, or the credit card attached to the account has expired, for example, what was a $1.50 toll is now $50 more because of penalties. “The volume of late fees is staggering.”
Carr said right now there are more than 44,000 cases on the docket.
“Our courts are absolutely backlogged with people fighting these late fees,” he said. “And you have to wait three years to get your day in court.”
That creates even more problems as people forget to appear, have moved, or have otherwise been lost in the system.
“A lot can happen in three years,” he noted. “There’s a high rate of failure to appear.”
One of those who signed the letter was Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (Dist. 34A). She said the entire issue smacks of poor planning.
“We had our Harford County meeting with transportation officials last week and I asked, why can’t you make the fees consistent with cashless,” she said. That would impose the penalty equally at all toll facilities once all were set up exclusively for cashless tolling.
Lisanti said Cecil and Harford County commuters will be among the first to be hit with the high fees. The Hatem was chosen to be among the first because of its high traffic volume, according to MDTA officials.
“I’m concerned with the impact on our commuters going back and forth,” she said of the daily travel on the Route 40 span over the Susquehanna River. “People that live and work in Harford and Cecil County pay exorbitant tolls already in their daily life.”
She thinks the $50 penalty for each infraction is harsh.
Drivers are also not given adequate warning that cards are about to or have expired, signage on the approach to the tolls is insufficient, there is inadequate assistance for speakers of other languages, and the confusion that comes when rental cars are being driven. Lisanti said she’s heard horror stories from people who have been hit with $10,000 in penalties because of being unaware of a problem with the credit card attached to their account, for example.
“Let’s say your card had been compromised and shut down by your credit card company,” she said. For a person who goes through a toll to get to and from work, that’s $500 in fines by the end of a week.
“It’s become a very expensive offense,” she said. “That’s grocery money for a family.”
When cashless tolling begins on the Hatem Bridge, any vehicle without a transponder in the windshield will pay $12 instead of the $8 toll for the one-way trip. Those with a transponder for use on the Hatem Bridge only will continue to be able to cross for a year for $20.
However failure to pay that $12 charge quickly becomes a $62 charge with the penalties about to be assessed, Carr said.
“(MDTA) admits the fee is too high,” he said. “Late fees have been a money-maker.”
Carr and the 34 other delegates want Maryland to follow the policy adopted by Massachusetts.
“They have low fees in proportion to the tolls,” Carr said. And instead of the high penalties Massachusetts has another way to get the tolls paid. The vehicle registration of the errant driver is flagged until the fines are paid.
“Because they use that hammer of not renewing your tags they have a good rate of payment,” he said. “The Massachusetts model works.”
However, Lisanti said that does not fix the issues in dealing with the system that operates E-ZPass, which is handled by a third party contractor.
“To pay the fine you have to have your control number. It’s not printed on the notice,” she said. She described the numerous phone calls and long waits on hold as “a time consuming nightmare.”