Toll Hike Proposed on Cape May County Bridges

Toll Hike Proposed on Cape May County Bridges

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Tolls may increase by 50 cents on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge and four other spans operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI and MADDY VITALE

The agency that operates five toll bridges linking the Cape May County shore communities along the scenic Ocean Drive is proposing a 50-cent fare increase to generate extra revenue to maintain antiquated bridges dating to the 1930s.

Karen Coughlin, executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, said that the toll increase, if given final approval, would take effect sometime in 2022 and be the first one since 2009. Before that, there was one in 1988.

“We are looking at a toll increase right now,” Coughlin said in an interview Wednesday. “We have it in the budget. We are putting everything together and I am finalizing it to go out to the public for a comment period beginning next week.”

The public comment period would start on Dec. 8 and end on Jan. 8. Members of the public will be able to fill out comment forms at all of the toll booths on the bridges or may email or mail them to the commission.

Currently, the toll is $1.50 for cars and would increase to $2 per car with the proposed fare hike. Toll rates for trucks would also go up by 50 cents.

Before the toll increase could happen, the Bridge Commission’s board members would need to make a decision after reviewing the proposal, including public comments, at a meeting on Jan. 20. At that time, the commission would vote on whether to pass a resolution formally approving the toll increase, Coughlin said.

The commission’s Townsends Inlet, Corsons Inlet, Middle Thorofare and Grassy Sound bridges all need extensive maintenance work, Coughlin pointed out.

“It is time,” she said of the need for an increase in tolls to help offset the cost of bridge repairs and upgrades.

Cape May County is currently studying the possibility of replacing the Townsends Inlet and Middle Thorofare bridges because of their deteriorated condition.

“We are unusual to have these four very old, movable bridges,” Coughlin said. “Not too many areas have four (bridges) that are well past their age. They were all built in the 1930s and all done by 1940. It is amazing that they lasted all this time. We want to replace them in the future, but for now, we need to make them last.”

The Ocean City-Longport Bridge, built in 2002, is the only modern span operated by the Bridge Commission.

The Ocean City-Longport Bridge is the only modern span in the Cape May County Bridge Commission’s network.

The commission adopted its 2022 budget in October. The total budget is $5.1 million. Total appropriations for 2022 are $5 million, leaving $185,507 in surplus, Coughlin said.

The budget is tight, but the aging bridges need constant and often costly work, she explained.

“Middle Thorofare had new railings installed, which was a huge undertaking,” she said.

A project coming up in the spring would provide some substructure work at Corsons Inlet, with the help of state funding that would be received through the county.

“We would run the project,” Coughlin said. “Work would be done to repair the underneath (of the bridge). The girders need to be strengthened and there are other repairs that would need to be done.”

Raising the tolls to generate extra revenue for bridge projects is something the Bridge Commission has considered in recent years. The commission discussed the possibility of raising tolls last year, but decided against it because of the coronavirus pandemic, Coughlin said.

The commission originally announced plans for a fare hike in 2017 to help pay for the introduction of the E-ZPass automated toll collection system on the bridges.

It later backed off raising tolls in 2017, after deciding that a fare increase during the summer tourism rush would have been complicated and confusing for motorists.

Under the proposed 2017 toll hike, the commission had wanted to structure it in a way so that year-round residents would not carry the burden of the increase.

There would have been a $1 increase in effect from Memorial Day to Columbus Day to coincide with the summer tourism season. A 50-cent toll increase would have occurred during the off-season.

Motorists have the option of paying their tolls with the E-ZPass system, with cash or with discount tickets. The commission stopped selling discount tickets in 2018, but motorists are still allowed to use them if they have any left over from previous years because they have no expiration date.