When five tractor-trailer trucks from Rhode Island were impounded for owing nearly $75,000 in Maine Turnpike tolls last year, the dollar figure was unusual, but not the violation.

Thousands of personal vehicle and commercial truck owners have racked up more than $824,000 in unpaid turnpike tolls and fees since 2013, according to a Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of Maine Turnpike Authority data. Most of the money is owed by out-of-state vehicles, including many commercial trucks, according to the turnpike authority.

The actual figure owed to the agency could be much higher.

Some vehicle owners likely will never have to pay, because their home state or Canadian province refuses to provide the turnpike authority with the name or contact information connected to the license plate.

In other cases, tollbooth cameras can’t read a plate because it is dirty, obscured or missing. Up to 200,000 vehicles breeze through toll plazas each year without paying for those reasons, said the turnpike authority’s executive director, Peter Mills.

“Your guess is as good as mine in terms of trying to put a dollar value on those 200,000 plates that went through, in some cases vehicles without plates,” Mills said. “We don’t know where to begin to identify the car or vehicle or try to collect from them.”

Though the total owed to the turnpike authority only equals about half of 1 percent of its $140 million annual toll revenue, the agency still puts in considerable effort to chase down toll scofflaws.

A violation is flagged if a vehicle goes through a cash toll booth without paying, or an electronic toll checkpoint without an active payment transponder, called an E-Z Pass. In those non-payment cases, tollbooth cameras take photos of front and rear license plates about 10,000 times a day, according to a memo from Mills to the turnpike authority’s board of directors.

Three-quarters of those violations are resolved after a violations clerk connects the plate images to an E-Z Pass account to which it can charge the toll.

Half the remaining violations are thrown out, either because the plate image is indecipherable or because the owner is within the turnpike authority’s grace period. The agency only pursues violators who have skipped payments of at least three tolls in six months.

But for chronic toll-dodgers – vehicles that run tolls dozens or hundreds of times – the turnpike authority gets tougher. It starts with notifications and demands for payment, then adds a $70 fine per license plate before escalating to asking the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles to suspend in-state vehicle registrations.

A five-year-old law allows the BMV to suspend the right of out-of-state violators to operate on state roads. That measure was used to seize five Rhode Island trucks in December. The owner has since paid his tolls, Mills said.

“If we can find the owner, usually they pay,” he added.

Turnpike authority staff estimates that it sends between 50 and 100 suspension requests to the BMV every day. Most of those violators pay up – only 4,600 Maine registrations were suspended for toll violations in 2018.

Finding the owner of an out-of-state vehicle can present a problem, because states are not obligated to share information associated with a license plate except in some law enforcement situations.

That makes recovering lost revenue a laborious process for the turnpike authority and all 120 U.S. toll operators, said Neil Gray, government affairs director for the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

“Many states really seriously restrict access to (motor vehicle department) databases,” Gray said. “There is no burden for other states to be responsive – that is sort of an embedded issue with the whole idea of reciprocity.”

Owners of out-of-state vehicles owe the Maine Turnpike Authority $614,250 in unpaid tolls and fees. Commercial trucks dominate the list of 50 biggest violators, including one Massachusetts company that owes about $7,600 in tolls on seven different vehicles.

Under state confidentiality laws, the turnpike authority is not allowed to disclose the name or address of its users.

It costs commercial trucks up to four and a half times more than passenger cars to use the turnpike, so their unpaid tolls add up fast, said Richard Somerville, director of E-Z Pass operations at the turnpike authority.

Most violations are unintentional, caused by an improperly placed transponder or a license plate that hasn’t been updated in the transponder system, Somerville said.

In other cases, however, a trucking company in tough financial shape might avoid paying tolls to help its bottom line, or haulers that only come to Maine seasonally may think they can dodge payment.

“I think there is an issue with people from states without reciprocity, and they are not coming a lot,” Somerville said. “A person who is really going to break the law is going to break the law – there is no such thing as a 100 percent foolproof system.”

Canadian truckers have been a particular sore spot for the turnpike authority. Provincial governments in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have strict laws to shield residents’ personal information. When the turnpike authority asks for names and addresses attached to a license plate, they don’t respond, Somerville said.

That makes it hard to even suspend the right of a company or individual to operate on Maine roads, as the turnpike authority can when it knows the identity of an out-of-state vehicle owner.

“If we haven’t sent them anything, we can’t give that plate to the state police and have them impound it, because they haven’t had any due process,” Somerville said.

Many toll agencies now only collect fares electronically, which increases the chances of non-payment, said Gray, of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. But because of widely different policies, there is no industry benchmark for what proportion of toll losses is expected in those systems.

Cash and token tolls had fewer violators, but they had other issues, such as theft and bank costs, Gray said.

Agencies are now boosting enforcement and considering interstate agreements such as the one between Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In that arrangement, the three states can request that their partners’ motor vehicles agency prevent re-registration of vehicles that owe tolls.

“Progressively we are going in that direction. The Maine effort is being viewed as a textbook way to try and do it,” Gray said.

“It is hard to do, it takes effort, but it is a nice physical way to show people that you are doing your best to enforce,” he said. “It’s not necessarily just driven by money; it is to be equitable to the people who pay on time and appropriately.”


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