Expressway Links Shore to City; Cost of E-ZPass Grew over Time

 

With the end of World War II, an era of unprecedented development and traffic arose to southern New Jersey. This led to the construction of a new limited-access, high-speed highway between Camden and Turnersville. But the need for the continuation to Atlantic City prompted the N.J. Highway Department to authorize preparation of engineering and traffic studies for a toll road between Turnersville and Atlantic City.

On Jan. 16, 1962, Gov. Robert Meyner signed the New Jersey Expressway Authority Act into law, authorizing the New Jersey Expressway Authority to issue bonds to construct and maintain the Atlantic City Expressway. The expressway is 44 miles long from Turnersville to Atlantic City. It is managed and operated as a toll road by the South Jersey Transportation Authority (SJTA), which assumed control of the road in 1991 from the New Jersey Expressway Authority.

The expressway was opened in 1964 and connected directly into Atlantic City in 1965. The total construction cost was $39.8 million. The expressway serves as an extension of Route 42 in Turnersville. Route 42 in turn serves as an extension of I-76 from Camden. The expressway has two barrier toll plazas, seven exit toll plazas and seven entrance ramp toll plazas.

Electronic Toll Collection

With increasing traffic levels, road congestion at toll plazas became a common occurrence. Officials were of course, looking for an improvement in the existing toll collection system. As far back as 1993, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg announced details of a proposed electronic toll collection system.

Some felt that would be a waste of money, especially with the general sentiment in favor of phasing out tolls. Visionary skeptics foresaw that an electronic toll collection system would be very expensive to implement, requiring new buildings, computers, extensive wiring at toll booths, a new billing and collection system, technicians to maintain and test the new system and electronic identification sensors to allow toll plazas to differentiate between authorized and unauthorized vehicles.

But electronic toll collection was a dream for bureaucrats, since it gave them an excuse to extend the life of toll collecting. Thus in November 1996, the state announced plans to award a $488 million contract to MFS Network Technologies, to set up an electronic toll collection system called E-ZPass.

The contract was signed in March 1998 and E-ZPass started on the Atlantic City Expressway in November 1998, on the Garden State Parkway in December 1999, and on the New Jersey Turnpike in September 2000. But when it was discovered that MFS could not record toll cheats electronically, toll collectors had to write down the license plate numbers of violators.

MFS eventually went bust, and the project moved to WorldCom Inc. at a cost of about $450 million. Worldcom was subsequently fired in July 2002, and replaced by ACS, Inc.

The introduction of E-ZPass did not go smoothly. Drivers, who erroneously entered the turnpike through an E-ZPass lane and then exited through a non-E-ZPass lane, found that they were charged the maximum toll at that exit. There were also cases where Turnpike “entries” didn’t get recorded but “exits” did.

That meant that some E-ZPass customers saw maximum toll amounts in their accounts when they should have been charged smaller amounts. Many E-ZPass customers undoubtedly never realized this, thus overpaying their toll amounts.

Problems were even worse when tags malfunctioned. The assumed violation triggered a camera, which took a picture of the passing vehicle’s license plate. That resulted in the owner receiving a $25 fine for an “administrative fee.” The violations included a picture of the license plate, which the E-ZPass agency traced through the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

If the owner was an E-ZPass customer, they could fill out the back of the violation, thus informing the agency that their pre-paid account had sufficient funds in it.

The agency then usually cancelled the fine and only assessed the toll fee. But this was expensive corrective action, since in addition to the time spent by the E-ZPass employees and the customer; a toll could result in two letters from the agency and one letter from the customer.

Safety became an additional concern, especially when approaching toll plazas, due to vehicles switching lanes at the last moment as they selected their desired toll lane. An even bigger safety hazard occurred when an E-ZPass driver had to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting a car backing out of an E-ZPass lane.

The speed limit on E-ZPass toll lanes was initially set at 5 mph, which was slower than the speed of most cars going past exact-change lanes. Most drivers ignored such a slow speed, possibly to avoid being rear-ended. This was because many drove through E-ZPass lanes at significantly higher speeds. The speed limit was eventually changed to 15 mph, thus making speeding through E-ZPass lanes less unacceptable.

An improvement in the system to allowed drivers to maintain highway speeds while paying their tolls was called “High-speed E-ZPass.”

It was eventually replaced by the more politically correct term “Express E-ZPass” and cost about $7.5 million per toll plaza.

The public was originally told that E-Z Pass would pay for itself because of the anticipated collection of about 2 million $25 violations per year. In fact, a 1998 forecast stipulated that there would be a $34.9 million surplus by 2008. But just three years later, the projection for 2008 turned into a $161.7 million deficit.

Officials clearly had to do something. They therefore eliminated E-ZPass discounts on Nov. 18, 2002. But even the elimination of discounts was not enough to put E-ZPass into the black. More action was needed. In a brilliant display of financial wizardry, then Gov. Jim McGreevey introduced a fee of $1 per month in January 2003 to bring in about $25 million per year.

A weak link of the E-ZPass system is the transponder tag, which is mounted in each vehicle for detection and toll collection purposes. Each is equipped with a battery, which is supposed to last 10 years. But with many batteries wearing out sooner than had been anticipated, more than a million tags were replaced under a $28 million contract with Mark IV Industries (the company that supplied the transponder), approved by the Turnpike Authority in 2006.

One has to wonder why the entire transponder tag had to be replaced, when all that was needed was a battery. It would have been much simpler if each tag user just replaced their own battery at a small fraction of the cost of replacing the entire tag. The technology exists to do that.

One need only look at smoke detectors, which even beep when it’s time to replace the battery. This is comparable to junking your car and purchasing a new one, when all you need is an oil change and a new set of tires.

This is an example of an agency running a high-tech system inefficiently.

(ED. NOTE: This is the sixth of a multi-part series on toll roads in New Jersey. The author was raised and educated in New York City, spent three years in the Army, and retired after a 34-year career with AT&T. In 2000, Bob joined an ad-hoc commit-tee called Citizens Against Tolls, whose primary goal was the elimination of tolls on the Garden State Parkway.)

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