Delaware cracks down on Maine-registered trailers flouting tolls

Posted Jan. 17, 2013, at 7:12 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Which state is home to the largest portion of out-of-state toll cheats on Delaware’s highways? Maine, apparently.

But it’s not that Mainers are traveling through Delaware en masse and refusing to pay tolls. It’s that thousands of Delaware residents are registering their boat and camper trailers — but not their cars and trucks — in Maine, and the toll cameras pick up only the Maine license plates.

Of the $1.5 million in tolls from out-of-staters that went unpaid in Delaware last year, $300,000 in unpaid levies were traced to Maine license plates, said Mike Williams, a Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles spokesman. That’s about 20 percent of Delaware’s unpaid tolls from outside the state and the highest amount of any state or Canadian province. And Delaware doesn’t have the authority to recoup lost toll revenue from out-of-state drivers.

“It’s been an issue for a long time, but we’re just now seeing more and more violations,” Williams said. “The tipping point just came that we needed to make it an issue.”

So Delaware officials are cracking down on residents who register their trailers in the Pine Tree State in an effort to save a few bucks on trailer registrations and avoid a required inspection.

Delaware already requires that residents register their vehicles and trailers in the state within 60 days of moving there, and the state recently raised the fine for failing to do that to $400 from $25. Now, the state is pursuing a public awareness campaign to let Delaware residents know it’s illegal to register trailers in Maine.

“The only way to eliminate the problem or put a dent in the problem locally is to really go up to rooftop and shout it out to everybody: ‘Please, don’t do this,’” Williams said. “We’re encouraging you to do the right thing.”

Residents of Delaware — and a number of other states — register their trailers in Maine because it’s cheaper and easier, since Maine doesn’t require an annual trailer safety inspection, Williams said. A Delaware resident, for example, can pay $22 to register a 2,000- to 5,000-pound trailer in Maine or $40 to register it in Delaware. Maine also allows trailer owners to register online or through the mail.

“If you’re a person who’s got multiple trailers and you’re tight on money, you say, ‘Gosh, I can save a couple hundred dollars doing this,’” Williams said. “They don’t even know it’s against the law.”

Unlike Delaware, Maine doesn’t require that a person registering a trailer in the state be a resident. And Maine doesn’t require an inspection when a trailer registration is renewed. Delaware requires an annual inspection as part of the registration renewal process once a trailer has been on the road for five years.

“The biggest thing that we have an issue with is the safety factor,” Williams said. “A trailer getting pulled around for 15 years, it might start to wear out. If it doesn’t go through inspection, there’s no way to guarantee what the situation is with its safety.”

But Delaware’s top concern isn’t safety; it’s the revenue the state is losing to Maine when large trucking companies register their commercial fleets in Maine, said Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, whose office oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

“If they are actually making a media issue out of someone registering a boat trailer in Maine, then they have nothing else to worry about,” Dunlap said. “It’s really the trucking companies who may be based in Delaware but are registering their fleets in Maine. The business model that Maine has put out there is impinging on their revenue streams.”

Registering trailers — both commercial and noncommercial — in Maine may be cheaper than it is elsewhere, Dunlap said, but the primary advantage to registering them in Maine is convenience. Maine’s long-term fleet registration program allows companies with large vehicle fleets to register their fleets for five to 12 years at a time, Dunlap said, saving them the administrative headache of renewing their fleet registrations annually.

“We’re just being competitive, earning some revenue for the highway fund,” Dunlap said.

And since Maine won’t change its trailer registration practices, Williams said, Delaware is turning to public awareness to try to bring some wayward trailer registrations home.

The state is also pursuing a legislative remedy to recoup unpaid toll revenue from out-of-state drivers: reciprocity agreements with other states that allow Delaware to collect unpaid tolls from their drivers. Williams said Delaware plans first to sign reciprocity agreements with neighboring Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, then with other states.

Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts entered into a first-ever toll collection reciprocity agreement last year.

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