Metro

Governor LePage’s office defends attack on Mass. toll system for ‘harassment’ of Maine drivers

Governor Paul LePage.
Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press
Governor Paul LePage.

Maine Governor Paul LePage’s office is defending a strongly worded letter he sent last week to Governor Charlie Baker accusing the Massachusetts toll collection system of bullying a Mainer into paying unjust late fees after driving through the Bay State.

“Upon looking into the constituent complaint, Governor LePage was so concerned by the extent of the problem and the volume of complaints to both Maine Turnpike staff and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles ... that he decided to bring this problem to the attention of Governor Baker,” said Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, in an email Tuesday.

Steele said that since “the story broke, [LePage’s office] has received several calls from Maine residents who faced the same harsh penalties from Massachusetts.”

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In the letter, dated July 31, LePage wrote that a Maine resident had to fork over more than $26 in fees “for a mere $6 in tolls” after the EZDriveMA system in Massachusetts failed to process his payments in a timely manner.

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LePage said EZDriveMA reps treated the man rudely when he called to inquire about the processing delays. The reps also warned that he could have his driver’s license suspended if he didn’t pay up.

“This unprofessional behavior looks more like a shakedown than the legitimate collection of tolls,” LePage wrote in the letter, which was first reported on by the Boston Herald and Portland Press Herald.

LePage said he’s learned that other drivers from his state have been hit with unwarranted late fees by their neigbors to the south. In addition, LePage said, EZDriveMA reps “inappropriately” threaten Maine drivers with license suspensions.

He concluded his letter ominously, warning Baker that if “the harassment of Maine drivers continues, we will respond to the full extent of the law.”

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LePage didn’t elaborate, and his spokesman declined to comment, saying the governor’s office couldn’t discuss legal strategy.

Baker’s spokesman declined to comment Tuesday, referring questions to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Patrick Marvin, a spokesman for the MassDOT, defended the toll collection system in a statement but did not respond directly to LePage’s allegations.

“The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has processed nearly 900 million transactions since transitioning to All Electronic Tolling in October 2016 and components of the system are designed to be more than 99.9% accurate,” Marvin said. “Individuals with questions or concerns regarding tolling invoices or charges issued by MassDOT should contact (877) 627-7745 or customer.service@ezdrivema.com, visit a customer service center, or visit www.ezdrivema.com.”

Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, insisted Tuesday that any information about state residents having issues with Massachusetts late fees did not come from the authority.

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“All I said [in prior interviews] was the Maine Turnpike isn’t receiving those complaints,” said Mills, a former Republican gubernatorial primary opponent of LePage.

Maine drivers, Mills said, who receive letters to pay Massachusetts tolls and fees get notes from the contractor that runs Massachusetts collections.

“They’re not calling us,” Mills said of aggrieved Maine drivers. “They may well be complaining to Massachusetts, but they’re not complaining to us.”

Steele, LePage’s spokesman, accused Mills of downplaying the issue while LePage “continues to place the interests of the toll and taxpayers in Maine first.”

Steele continued, “Perhaps it’s because Governor LePage has advocated merging Maine Turnpike Authority and MDOT, which would eliminate all tolls within the state except for the York toll plaza, that the [Turnpike Authority] so aggressively defends the toll-taking system as a way to justify their existence. An interesting political side note: Peter Mills is the brother of Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat now running for governor who has clashed for years with Governor LePage and has refused to represent the Executive Branch in several lawsuits.”

Mills said the political ambitions of his sister, who hopes to defeat the term-limited LePage’s “chosen successor” on the GOP side, “has nothing to do” with his statements about toll collections.

“I’m just trying to defend the Turnpike,” Mills said. “We’re not the source of this information” about wrongful late fees, though “there may well be those difficulties.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Mills took aim at LePage’s merger proposal, writing that “it included giving up about $80 million in annual revenue by cancelling all tolls north of York. In this day and age, with the gas tax on its way out, no one on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee could determine how the Governor would replace the lost revenue. A great deal of the toll money north of York is collected from out-of-state travelers. The bill was unanimously rejected.”

Steele, LePage’s spokesman, maintained that the governor’s office did speak about the toll issue with Turnpike Authority staff who provided “all the information about how the process works, including the number of requests they get each month for addresses of plates. One of their staff told us it may not be at a crisis level yet, but it’s significant.”

Mills also addressed that contention in his e-mail.

“Under the Massachusetts toll-by-plate system, when Massachusetts needs to find an address for the owner of a Maine registered motor vehicle, I believe they ask for it electronically from the Maine Secretary of State’s office as a subscriber to InforME, Maine’s Information Resource Network, and not from the Maine Turnpike Authority,” Mills wrote. “We are not the state repository for license plate data. No one here at the Turnpike could comment about the volume of inquiries because we are not the agency that receives and answers those requests.”

Mills said the authority is not “downplaying any consumer complaints about the Massachusetts system. Those would be more effectively lodged with the agency that imposed them in Massachusetts. And that is what Governor LePage has now done.”

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, whose office oversees motor vehicle registrations and licenses, said Tuesday that vehicle registrations, not licenses, are sometimes suspended for non-payment of toll fees.

But that penalty, Dunlap said, is generally reserved for “people who don’t respond” to bills.

“It’s not an overwhelming amount” of the suspensions, Dunlap said.

Asked about LePage’s decision to send the letter to Baker, Dunlap, a Democrat who’s elected by his state Legislature, struck a diplomatic tone.

“Well, you know, [LePage] is very responsive to people, which is a kind way of saying that he got a complaint and he decided to act on it,” Dunlap said. “This fellow [the Maine driver] called the governor and was greatly aggrieved at what he was going through. ... This is not uncommon for Governor LePage. When somebody comes in with a complaint, he likes to take it by the horns.”

Dunlap said he ultimately doesn’t think “much is going to happen with this,” since LePage “doesn’t have an awful lot of jurisdiction” over Dunlap’s office or Mills.

However, Dunlap said, the public spat does come with a silver lining.

“It has raised some awareness about the toll violation issue, which is probably not a bad thing,” Dunlap said.

Material from the Portland Press Herald was used in this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.