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Maryland lawmakers pass bills in response to ‘E-ZPass Debacle’

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Posted at 6:00 AM, May 03, 2022

BALTIMORE — It's been a long road for drivers with toll bill issues. In response to the many complaints by constituents, as well as lawmakers, the Maryland General Assembly passed several bills giving drivers time to pay and dispute toll charges without facing steep penalties.

During the pandemic, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) switched to cashless tolling to keep traffic moving, but billing came to a complete stop.

For seven months, the state paused processing toll transactions while it worked to implement new software and provide financial relief to drivers.

When the MDTA began processing tolls again last Spring, it had to catch up on millions of backlogged transactions. Drivers started receiving large stacks of bills and hefty late fees.

“I received $4,000 in late fees,” said Grace Kirby.

Transcore, the state’s vendor operating customer call support centers, struggled to keep up with demand from drivers calling with questions about delayed notices while also facing staffing shortages.

At one point, 60 agents were tasked with answering more than 100,000 calls in one month.

In December, lawmakers asked the MDTA what they were doing to address long call wait times, excessive penalties, and the massive backlog.

"I was looking at a WMAR article, the title is ‘It’s been an absolute consumer nightmare, 82 E-ZPass agents handling 15,000 calls a day’ dated November 23rd, and one of the things I think about is what are the contractual obligations of the contractor? How many employees did they submit when they put out the bid, when they put out the RFP?," Senator Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) asked Maryland Transportation Secretary James Ports, Jr. during a hearing on December 1.

The agency still hadn’t taken action at the start of this year, so lawmakers introduced a series of bills.

Under pressure from the General Assembly and public, the MDTA Board approved a Customer Assistance Plan on February 24, 2022, giving customers until midnight on November 30, 2022 to pay their tolls without any penalties.

READ MORE: MDTA Board votes to temporarily waive late fees for outstanding toll bills

Senate Bill 59, which received unanimous support in both the Maryland House of Delegates and State Senate, codifies the plan.

It requires the MDTA to waive penalties for late toll bills through the November 30 deadline, reimburse and notify drivers who paid those penalties in error, and report that information back to the General Assembly by December 1.

WMAR-2 News requested information on the number of drivers who paid penalties in error. The MDTA hasn’t yet provided that information.

The bill doesn’t force the agency to reimburse drivers who paid penalties before the plan went into effect.

“Some of these people already paid the tolls and penalties because they feared the threats and having their vehicle registration suspended, which would’ve only created more hardship,” said Leah Biddinger with the Sussex Community Association during a MDTA Board meeting in March. “Refunds need to be issued to those who have already paid.”

WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii requested an interview with Secretary Ports or MDTA Executive Director William Pines. Both declined her request.

MDTA spokesperson John Sales would not clarify the agency’s interpretation of when a penalty is paid “in error.” In an email to Sofastaii, he wrote:

“If a customer believes they received or paid a toll charge and/or civil penalty in error, they may call 1-888-321-6824 or visit one of our in person customer service centers, and the MDTA will review on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for reimbursement. For SB 59, the MDTA will reimburse any individual who paid a civil penalty in error under the Authority's Customer Assistance Plan as approved on February 24, 2022. Please refer to the language as stated in SB 59.”

“So when I talked to the director of MDTA, he acknowledged that when [customers] call, they’re getting a refund. But one of the things I would say to any of my constituents in the 45th district, Marylanders as a whole, if you have a challenge with the MDTA when you make that call, after you get that notification about getting that reimbursement, please reach out to your legislator or you can reach out to myself,” said McCray.

And while SB 59 requires the MDTA to notify customers who may be eligible for a refund before October 1, 2022, the agency is not required to make individual notifications.

The MDTA plans to continue making the public aware of the Customer Assistance Plan through mass communications and inserts included with mailed notices of tolls due.

“I think it’s really incumbent on us to keep reminding the public, and quite frankly, keep reminding the press,” said Ports.
“And the legislature,” added a Board Member.
“Yes, and the legislators that we did, we went above and beyond but there is an end date to that,” Ports said during a MDTA Board meeting on March 31.

Two other tolling system reform bills passed the General Assembly.

HB 38 allows the MDTA to recall delinquent accounts from the Central Collection Unit and waive unpaid tolls and associated penalties. It also prohibits the CCU from collecting a delinquent account already recalled by the Authority.

HB 335 gives customers one year to dispute any toll charges or fees posted to the account. However, this law would expire on June 30, 2023.

These three bills aren’t law just yet. Governor Hogan can sign the bills, let them go into law without signing, or veto the bills.

**UPDATE: May 16, 2022**
Governor Hogan is scheduled to sign SB 59 and HB38 into law at a bill signing ceremony on May 16. HB 335 was not on the list.

If Hogan vetoes SB 59, a clause in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget would require the MDTA to submit to a performance audit evaluating ongoing issues with E-ZPass toll collections and accuracy before the agency is re-imbursed $250,000 for MDTA policing services.