By Donald Wittkowski
Motorists crossing over the five seashore bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission have been paying their fares the same way for decades – they pull up to the toll plaza, come to a stop and then hand their money to a collector.
Precious time is lost while one car after another crawls through the toll booth, including the all-too-familiar scene of drivers fumbling for some loose change, causing even more delays and backups.
But the Cape May County Bridge Commission is finally moving ahead with plans to install E-ZPass on all of its spans to give motorists the convenience of the automated toll-collection system.
Karen Coughlin, the commission’s executive director, said testing of E-ZPass is scheduled to begin this month on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge. Barring any problems during the three-week test period, E-ZPass will go live on the bridge in February, she noted.
After the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, E-ZPass will be installed on the Grassy Sound Bridge, then the Corsons Inlet Bridge, then the Townsends Inlet Bridge and, finally, the Middle Thorofare Bridge, the commission said. Each bridge will come online with E-ZPass in intervals of about a week, meaning that automated tolls should be installed on all of the bridges by March, Coughlin said.
“When E-ZPass goes live, it will be at the same toll as now, a $1.50,” Coughlin said in an interview Friday.
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.
The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operator, is working with the Cape May County Bridge Commission to install the E-ZPass equipment that is needed to begin testing on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.
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.
Without E-ZPass, traffic has a habit of backing up on the bridges during the busy summer tourism season. Coughlin said 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.
There is currently a one-way toll of $1.50 on all of the commission bridges, which connect the Cape May County seashore towns along the scenic Ocean Drive. To help pay for the conversion to E-ZPass, the commission had proposed seasonal tolling rates to coincide with the summer tourism season, so that year-round residents would not carry the burden of the increase.
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. However, those plans remain in limbo. It is not clear whether the commission will revive the proposed toll hike.
The toll increase was originally supposed to go into effect June 1, 2017, but the commission backed off taking a final vote to approve it last year. At that time, the commission decided that instituting a toll increase during the summer tourism rush would be complicated, confusing and burdensome to customers.
After the proposed toll increase was announced, Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio, who is also a Cape May County freeholder, and members of Sea Isle’s City Council immediately denounced the plan.
Desiderio and the Council members argued that higher tolls are not needed and would simply be a financial burden on 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.