Maryland toll authority was unaware it was overcharging motorists, audit finds

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates toll facilities around the state, didn’t know it was overcharging motorists, a review by legislative auditors concluded.

Even after billing mistakes were flagged in December 2019, the authority conducted only “limited” reviews to determine the extent of the problem, according to the report.

Del. Al Carr (D-Montgomery), who has tracked MDTA issues, noted that period covered by the audit — May 10, 2016 to March 4, 2020 — ended long ago. He said the true scope of Maryland’s toll-collection problem goes deeper than the report uncovered.

The authority agreed with some findings by the Office of Legislative Audits and disagreed with others. It said its systems flag most errors before motorists’ accounts are debited. The MDTA pledged to correct problems highlighted in the audit by Dec. 1.

During the audit period, MDTA switched vendors in order to upgrade the equipment and software it uses to detect E-ZPass transponders, read license plates and collect tolls.

The changeover has proven time-consuming and has resulted in some motorists being over-billed. Some two-axle vehicles have been charged the higher rates that apply to vehicles with three or more axles. In other instances, motorists were double-billed because their vehicle was recorded by multiple devices within a span of a few seconds.

The authority was “inconsistent” in how it treated overbilled motorists, auditors found. Some accounts were credited, others were not.

“Specifically, although we noted that MDTA investigated certain errors during the implementation of the new system and took action to correct those errors with tolling equipment, it did not ensure all customers were refunded for any over-billing,” said the report.

The change in equipment took about a year, from mid-2019 to mid-2020.

The MDTA “became aware of issues” with the new system in December 2019, through internal review and customer complaints, according to the audit.

Although the audit focused on issues at four facilities — the Fort McHenry Tunnel, Intercounty Connector, the I-95 Express Toll Lanes, and the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge — auditors found improper billing at a fifth location, the Francis Scott Key Bridge, one “that MDTA had not previously documented.”

The true scope of the over-billing isn’t known, auditors said, because MDTA only conducted “limited research.”

“[U]pon us bringing the issue to MDTA’s attention in April 2021, it performed limited research (two separate 24-hour periods during March and September 2020) to determine if the errors resulted in customers being over-billed,” auditors wrote. “MDTA advised us that a small number of customers were over-billed but it did not determine the amount of the over-billings or conduct further research by reviewing other time periods.”

At the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the MDTA told auditors it identified approximately 7,700 customers who were over-billed a total of $84,400. As of August, the authority was still in the process of crediting these accounts.

At the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, the authority credited $67,000 to approximately 5,600 vehicles whose axles were miscounted.

In its formal reply, the authority acknowledged that in “certain limited circumstances, customers were charged an incorrect toll rate,” but it disagreed with the claim that “these identified issues are part of a larger unknown problem.”

The MDTA said it runs a “robust real-time monitoring system” that detects “anomalies, so that issues can be quickly identified and corrected to minimize any potential errors.” The authority said it is working to “formalize” its process for identifying, stopping and fixing tolling errors and to issue credits where necessary.

The authority said that during the audit period, it processed an average of 158 million transactions per year. A four-day analysis at two facilities identified just 15 instances where motorists were overcharged, out of 230,687 transactions.

MDTA officials noted that the pandemic forced them to make significant changes to their operations in a short period — including pulling toll-takers off the job and shifting to all-electronic toll collection as a health precaution. The pandemic also made it more difficult for the new vendor to install and test new equipment.

Carr called the authority’s response to its billing issues “inadequate.”

“I don’t think they’re taking this as seriously as they should,” he said. “I would expect that MDTA would be proactively detecting those types of errors and then fixing them before they occur.”

“I see excuses where they’re pointing the finger” at the vendor change and the pandemic,” he added. “The public expects those kinds of transitions to not have errors, given how long MDTA and its vendors have been in this business.”

Carr called the audit “an old snapshot of what’s going on within MDTA,” and he urged the Office of Legislative Audits to follow up “sooner than later.”

In an email, Legislative Auditor Gregory A. Hook said the pandemic forced his team to overcome many challenges, while “maintaining our high standards that resulted in quality audits.”

“Frankly, I am quite proud of the work of the OLA staff during these times, as they stayed focused, productive and dedicated to serving the General Assembly,” he wrote.

The transportation authority has an enormous backlog of pandemic-era tolls. Officials have said they’re digging into the backlog slowly on purpose, to ease the financial burden on people who have lost jobs.

The MDTA board gets monthly briefings on the backlog and the authority’s executive director, James F. Ports Jr., has told the board it will take well into next year to clear.

Given the volume of complaints Carr gets from constituents, he said the audit is not “capturing the magnitude of the billing problems. … We know there have been major billing issues that occurred outside the scope of this report.”

The OLA also discovered that the MDTA does not regularly review who has access to confidential customer information. As a result, state employees and contractors who no longer needed access to that data continued to have it.

The authority agreed to improve its safeguarding of customer data by conducting “periodic” reviews.

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