BALTIMORE — Legislation impacting Maryland’s tolling system is making headway.
Senate Bill 59, which creates payment installments plans, recalls toll debts, and waives civil penalties, passed the Senate late last week along with a few surprise amendments.
The bill is in response to the Maryland Transportation Authority’s decision to pause toll processing for seven months during the pandemic, then send packets of backlogged tolls with expensive penalties tacked onto them.
“I received this, which is probably about half,” said Rob Dentry holding a stack of toll notices dating back to August 2020. “It’s $260 or so in actual tolls then $600 in late fees.”
Dentry said he tried paying online before the penalties kicked in, but there were charges that didn’t belong to him.
“I wanted to pay it, but they said it wasn’t verified yet so to hold off and come to the site later,” added Dentry.
He waited too long. The MDTA hit him with 24 civil penalties at $25 a piece.
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“I was very angry,” Dentry said. But he paid the bill begrudgingly in fear of facing additional penalties or having his registration suspended.
Less than two weeks later, the MDTA Board approved the Customer Assistance Plan waiving all civil penalties through November 30, however, it doesn’t apply to Dentry.
“We have a Trust Agreement and in that Trust Agreement, the Board has to take an action before something can occur, so you cannot have a retroactive policy. It has to start the day it’s enacted,” Maryland Secretary of Transportation James Ports, Jr. told WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii during a news conference following the Board’s announcement.
“I took the responsibility to pay that, and I shouldn’t be punished because of that,” said Dentry.
All of Maryland’s state senators seem to agree after unanimously passing Senate bill 59 on Friday.
The bill allows the MDTA to offer payment installment plans, recall delinquent toll debt sent to the Central Collection Unit, and confirms civil penalties will be waived according to the Customer Assistance Plan plus several new amendments.
“The most important part is the folks that already paid, so they didn’t want to deal with MDTA, they said I don’t believe I’m in the wrong, but I’m just going to pay the fee, this makes sure MDTA notifies them and lets them know they’re eligible for a refund,” said Senator Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City), the bill’s lead sponsor.
Senator McCray is also seeking information on the number of customers who may be eligible for reimbursement. The agency hasn’t yet complied, so the bill would compel it to.
“Is this your response to the MDTA not willingly providing this information?” asked Sofastaii.
“Very much so. I think as they rolled out the Customer Assistance Plan, information isn’t coming as fast as it was prior to the bill being introduced. And one of the things we know, and as a safeguard, is that we’ll just put it in the statute to make sure that we get the required information for us to make intelligent decisions as we go forward as a legislature,” McCray said.
And he’s hopeful the bill will continue to receive bipartisan support as it now works its way through the House of Delegates.
“I just thank you for being the first and the most vigilant on this issue. I think the Customer Assistance Plan did not just come out of the air, it came because of people such as yourself because of Marylanders who were amplifying their voices on such a serious issue,” McCray said to Sofastaii.
Another amendment requires the MDTA to be more transparent during the contract process for vendors seeking tolling contracts.
Delegate Kevin Hornberger, lead sponsor of the House bill version, told WMAR-2 News that he ordered amendments to conform HB-582 to the Senate version that recently moved.
It’s unclear when the Environment and Transportation Committee plans to vote on HB-582.
The MDTA previously issued testimony on SB-59 raising concerns about the bill’s impact to revenue. When asked about the new amendments, a spokesperson said they have no comment on draft legislation prior to bills becoming law.