By November, An Easy Pass Through The A.c. Expressway Nov. 10 Is The Target Date For An Electronic Toll System To Hit The Highway. The Turnpike And Parkway Will Follow Soon After.

Posted: March 12, 1998

E-ZPass - the system that electronically deducts toll charges while motorists drive past the toll booth - will be running on the Atlantic City Expressway by Nov. 10 and on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway 14 months after that, transportation officials said yesterday.

And they project that most of the cost will be borne by folks who try to cheat the system.

The $500 million contract was awarded last year and has suffered delays that officials blame partly on the sheer complexity of coordinating efforts with five transportation agencies - including one in Delaware and one in New York - and partly on changes in the project specifications.

``Maybe it should've been Agonizing Pass or Not-so-easy Pass,'' joked Transportation Commissioner John J. Haley Jr., referring to the years of negotiations. The project was conceived more than 10 years ago.

But from here on, the public-private partnership expects no further delays and envisions a profit machine that could generate hundreds of millions of dollars.

E-ZPass is in place at river crossings into New York City, including the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. New Jersey officials hope the system will be interwoven with similar ones in other states, enabling motorists to drive from Massachusetts to Washington without reaching for their wallets.

In a financial estimate provided yesterday, officials project that over a 10-year period, they will collect $450 million in fines from violators in New Jersey. Another $205 million will come from renting the excess capacity on new underground fiber-optics lines, whose primary purpose will be transmitting toll charges to a central processing center in Secaucus.

Those two revenue sources will barely cover construction, debt service and other costs, but the estimates are on the conservative side because they were prepared to demonstrate the ability to repay $300 million that is being borrowed for start-up costs.

In reality, the partnership expects to earn a profit of hundreds of millions of dollars over that 10-year-period, said William Thompson, president of the principal contractor, MFS Transportation Systems of Mount Laurel.

MFS will get 15 percent of profits. The remaining 85 percent will be split among members of a consortium that includes the Turnpike Authority, the New Jersey Highway Authority (which operates the Parkway), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the South Jersey Transportation Authority (which operates the Expressway), and the Delaware Department of Transportation.

To participate, motorists must obtain a wallet-size ``transponder'' from a store, gas station or even over the Internet. There is no cost other than a $10 security deposit. They can then call a toll-free number and give their credit card number to set up a minimum $25 account.

Each time the motorist passes through a specially marked toll booth, the scanner will identify the car and send the information electronically to the center in Secaucus - a transportation bank of sorts where the tolls will be deducted from the driver's account.

In addition to the Hudson and East River crossings, an E-ZPass system is in place on the New York State Thruway, and another is under construction on the bridges run by the Delaware River Port Authority. The latter could join the New Jersey-Delaware-New York consortium, or it could set up its own customer-service center.

Even in the latter case, New Jersey motorists could cross the Benjamin Franklin Bridge with the same transponder they use on the Turnpike, because the technology is the same.

The same is also true for toll roads in Pennsylvania and Maryland; each agency could handle the other's transactions as needed, much as automated tellers at one bank can accommodate transactions for another bank.

MFS, the contractor, is a subsidiary of MFS Network Technologies of Omaha, Neb. The Omaha company is owned by WorldCom Inc., the maverick telecommunications company that stunned Wall Street last fall with its bid to purchase MCI Communications, the country's second-largest long-distance telephone carrier.

WorldCom, based in Jackson, Miss., will likely rent space on the very fiber-optics lines that are being laid by its subsidiary, to carry both local- and long-distance telephone traffic. But it won't pay any less than AT&T Corp. or any other phone company, MFS officials said.

``They'll pay the going rate,'' Thompson said.

One unexpected by-product of E-ZPass could be better tracking of fugitives from justice.

Transportation officials say the system was not conceived as a way to aid law enforcement, but they concede that police may at times come in search of driver information. When police were tracking suspects in the killing of North Jersey businessman Nelson Gross, for example, they subpoenaed E-ZPass records from the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The New Jersey consortium would provide records only under court order, said Lynn Fleeger, a spokeswoman for the Turnpike Authority.

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