By Donald Wittkowski
Motorists waiting for the arrival of E-ZPass on the five bridges that connect the Cape May County seashore towns along the scenic Ocean Drive will have to be patient.
In other words, they’ll have to continue with that age-old ritual of fumbling for cash or coins and stopping at the toll plaza for at least a few more weeks.
The Cape May County Bridge Commission had hoped to have the electronic E-ZPass toll system ready for all of its bridges by March, but delays have pushed back the timetable.
“It’s definitely not going live for March,” said Karen Coughlin, the bridge commission’s executive director.
Coughlin explained that the commission is still waiting for the final go-ahead from the E-ZPass New Jersey Customer Service Center, the company that will operate the toll network.
In the meantime, testing on the E-ZPass system is tentatively scheduled to begin in two or three weeks on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, Coughlin said.
Barring any problems during the test period, E-ZPass may go into operation on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge sometime in April.
“Right now, I’m looking, hopefully, for the second week to mid-April. But I’m not confident with that at all,” Coughlin said.
The Ocean City-Longport Bridge has been chosen as the first bridge to get E-ZPass because its existing toll plaza already has the overhead gantries that are needed to support the hardware for the automated fare system.
To alleviate fears of E-Pass traffic zooming through the toll plaza at high speeds, gates will be installed on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge to slow drivers down, Coughlin said. Cape May County is also installing pedestrian crosswalks and signs near the bridge to improve safety, she added.
The commission will bring its other bridges online for E-ZPass in intervals of every two weeks. Depending on how well testing and installation of the equipment goes, there is a possibility that two bridges might get E-ZPass at the same time, Coughlin noted.
After the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, E-ZPass will be installed on the Middle Thorofare Bridge, then the Corsons Inlet Bridge, then the Grassy Sound Bridge and, finally, the Townsends Inlet Bridge.
The Townsends Inlet bridge, which connects Sea Isle City with Avalon, will be the last to get E-ZPass because it is currently undergoing extensive maintenance work that has reduced travel to one alternating lane of traffic, Coughlin said. The $2.7 million maintenance project is scheduled to be completed before summer.
E-ZPass will make the Cape May County Bridge Commission bridges compatible with major highways serving the Jersey Shore. E-ZPass, which allows motorists to pay electronically while breezing through a toll plaza without having to stop, has been in use for years on the Garden State Parkway and the Atlantic City Expressway.
Without E-ZPass, traffic has a habit of backing up on the bridges during the busy summer tourism season, as motorists crawl through the toll plaza to pay their fare with cash or coins.
“It’s going to bring convenience,” Coughlin said of E-ZPass. “Motorists won’t have to have cash in their pocket.”
Coughlin noted that most of the calls she receives at the commission’s office are from motorists who question or complain about the lack of E-ZPass.
Motorists, however, will have the option of paying with cash or toll tickets even after E-ZPass goes online. The human toll collectors will stay. The collectors are also needed to operate the movable spans that open up to allow boat traffic to pass through the bridges.
Coughlin said there will be no change with the $1.50 bridge toll once E-ZPass becomes operational.
“There is no toll increase projected for the immediate future that I’m aware of,” she said.
Originally, the bridge commission had proposed a toll increase in 2017 to help pay for the E-ZPass system, but backed off giving the fare hike final approval.
Under the plan, there would have been a $1 toll increase in effect from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. A 50-cent toll increase would have occurred during the off-season. The idea was to have a smaller toll increase during the off-season to relieve year-round residents of the financial burden of paying most of the fare hike.
The toll increase was supposed to go into effect June 1, 2017, but the commission never took a final vote to put it into effect. At the time, the commission decided that instituting a toll increase during the summer tourism rush would be complicated, confusing and burdensome to customers.
Now, it does not appear the commission has plans to revive the proposed toll increase.
“There’s been no talk about it,” Coughlin said.
After the proposed toll increase was announced, Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio, who is also a Cape May County freeholder, and members of Sea Isle’s City Council immediately denounced the plan, saying it would have been a financial hardship for local motorists.
They also said higher tolls would be a double whammy for Sea Isle residents, because they use both the Townsends Inlet Bridge connecting Sea Isle and Avalon and the Corsons Inlet Bridge linking Sea Isle and Strathmere.
The last time there was a toll increase on the bridges was in 2009. The fare was raised by 50 cents then, Coughlin said.