Bryan P. Sears//September 17, 2021
//September 17, 2021
Motorists using the state’s toll roads, bridges and tunnels may want to pay closer attention to their bills. Malfunctions of a new toll collection system is being blamed for the overbilling of thousands of motorists.
A review of toll facilities by the Office of Legislative Audits confirmed the overcharges. The review found that in some cases the Maryland Transportation Authority was unaware of the issues. In others, efforts to detect the overbilling were insufficient.
“We were unable to quantify the potential overbilling related to these issues due to the lack of available data; however, MDTA acknowledged that tolling errors would increase during the new system implementation and there was a general increase in tolls dismissed from tolling errors but could not cite” the new system as the cause, according to the audit.
The audit, based on tips to a waste, fraud and abuse hotline, found tens of thousands of dollars in overcharges. In some cases, car were charged as both a two-axle and five-axle vehicle.
Auditors wrote that the authority “investigated certain errors during the implementation of the new (toll) system and took action to correct those errors with tolling equipment, it did not ensure that all customers were refunded for any overbilling.”
In a response, officials with the toll authority said instances of overbilling are extremely rare and were corrected as new equipment is calibrated.
“In a detailed analysis provided to (auditors) covering four specific days at two different facilities, MDTA identified 15 occurrences of customers being overcharged out of a total of 230,687 transactions,” the agency wrote in its response.
The agency wrote that it refunds all overcharges. In cases where travelers are undercharged, the agency does not seek additional payments.
A 2019 review of tolls at the Ft. McHenry Tunnel by the authority determined that drivers of two-axle cars were charged for additional axles. Auditors said the agency did not determine the impact on travelers until April 2021. That review resulted identifying 7,700 customers who owed more than $84,000.
As of August, the agency was still in the process of issuing refunds, according to the audit.
Auditors found a similar issue at the Francis Scott Key bridge in April and May of 2020. A review found that some motorists were correctly charged a $3 toll for a standard two-axle vehicle. They were then also charged $24, the rate for a five-axle vehicle.
“As with the aforementioned For McHenry Tunnel issue, MDTA management advised us that they were not aware of this issue and that these types of errors are extremely rare since it’s tolling system is supposed to automatically detect and correct such errors,” auditors wrote.
Another MDTA review in October and November 2019 identified more than 5,600 transactions for two-axle vehicles that were overbilled. The review resulted in credits of $67,000.
Auditors also found that camera malfunctions on the Intercounty Connector from April to August 2020 resulted in “vehicle misreads, which could have caused overbillings. A similar issue was found on Interstate 95 express lanes in October 2020, according to the audit.
The agency wrote that it identified 703 instances of overcharges on the ICC totaling more than $425. On the I-95 toll lanes, 1,720 people were overcharged. The agency said it refunded more than $3,400.
Remote work forced by the pandemic caused a more than 17% drop in traffic at authority facilities.
In fiscal 2020, the authority recorded 138 million trips, down from 167 million in 2019. As a result, toll revenue in fiscal 2020 was $129.5 million lower than the previous year.
During this period the authority transitioned to a new toll collection system.
The pandemic hastened that transition. The agency fast-tracked a plan to close toll booths. An all-electronic system, including E-ZPass and video toll collections, replaced cash payments.