Atlantic City Expressway plans all-electronic tolling

Posted: September 04, 2010

Most of the full-time toll-takers on the Atlantic City Expressway make $60,000. One-third have seen wage increases of at least 30 percent since 2008, despite a steady drop in travelers paying in cash.

And toll plaza supervisors earn $85,000.

Sound good? Don't rush to apply for a job just yet.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority, which oversees the expressway, plans to knock down the toll booths and convert to an all-electronic tolling system by Memorial Day weekend. Three dozen toll collectors will lose their jobs.

"Toll collectors are going to become obsolete," said spokeswoman Sharon Gordon.

Increasing rates of electronic collection have lessened the need for toll takers around the country, as more agencies turn to cashless tolling, aimed at lowering operational costs and boosting safety and convenience for travelers.

Cashless tolling is already used in parts of Texas, California, Colorado, and other states. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is converting to all-electronic tolling, while the North Carolina Turnpike Authority is planning for cashless tolling on the Triangle Expressway, under construction.

The replacement Scudder Falls Bridge between Mercer and Bucks Counties on I-95 will have cashless tolls.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey this year authorized the construction of a new toll-collecting system that will be compatible with all-electronic tolling. The reason is "so that at some point in the future, if our board decides to go with a cashless tolling option, the equipment's in place to do so," said spokesman Steve Coleman.

Many toll collectors at the Port Authority earn between $70,000 and $80,000 a year with overtime, though more than 80 percent of the 121 million toll transactions last year were through E-ZPass.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) this week introduced a bill to privatize the toll collectors' jobs at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. The measure was among a series of recommendations in a report commissioned by Gov. Christie.

The report, released in July, said the authority was paying toll-takers on the turnpike and Garden State Parkway between 40 percent and 50 percent more than what a private vendor would charge. It recommended that outsourcing be used as a "stopgap" until the agency moves forward with cashless tolling.

E-ZPass accounts for about 70 percent of toll collections at the Turnpike Authority, where the base pay for most toll-takers ranges from about $60,000 to $70,000.

"There's no reason to overpay for a service that's generally available," said Dick Zimmer, a former Republican congressman who chaired the privatization task force that issued the report. "It's essentially making change."

Franceline Ehret, president of the union that represents the Turnpike Authority toll collectors, predicted the agency would lose a tremendous amount of money trying to track drivers down to pay tolls in an all-electronic system.

She argued against privatization, saying, "In order to have a middle-class living in New Jersey, you need to live on around what we make. . . . We're on a race to the bottom and it has me very concerned. This idea of privatization and outsourcing is all about depressing wages for middle-class workers."

Major changes are expected to take place first at the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which collected about $60 million in tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway last year.

Travelers down the expressway to the Shore are all too familiar with the traffic backups around the toll plazas in Egg Harbor City and Pleasantville.

But drivers won't have to slow down at all under the SJTA's planned all-electronic-tolling system. The agency plans to tear down the toll booths and install 13 gantries, - bridge-like steel structures, with no barriers dividing the roadway. The drive through would be straight and open, far from the free-for-all that often takes place at toll plazas.

The new system would bill E-ZPass customers the same way. But for the expressway travelers who don't use E-ZPass, the gantries would come equipped with cameras to snap photos of license plates, eventually creating a bill that would go out in the mail.

The median salary for a full-time toll collector at the SJTA is $59,806, while the median wage increase since 2008 - under union contracts - is 11 percent. That's well over the pay at the Delaware River Port Authority, the Delaware River Bay Authority, and the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, all where the highest-paid toll-collectors make no more than $47,000.

Job requirements are a high school education and driver's license.

"I can't afford to pay toll collectors $60,000 a year anymore," said SJTA executive director Bart Mueller, who makes $156,134.

Mueller said E-ZPass collection has risen from 48 percent when he arrived at the SJTA in 2003 to close to 65 percent today.

Some may not like the changes, he said, but this is what customers want and the SJTA has an obligation to its bottom line and the traveling public.

He said the agency hasn't hired any full-time toll collectors in the last three years, turning more to part-time workers to fill those jobs. He added that toll collectors have the chance to compete for more technical, back-office positions once the expressway goes cashless.

Leaders of the agency said the transition has to take place by the start of the next summer season, when traffic will shoot up again. The SJTA is working to add a third lane to the expressway westbound from the Garden State Parkway interchange to the Egg Harbor plaza by January. Several more phases are planned to eventually expand the third lane to where the road connects to Route 73 at Exit 31.

Officials said the move to all-electronic tolling is expected to cost $43 million, about one-third less than the cost of replacing the current toll plaza system.

Also projected are more than $3 million in savings for operating costs.

But don't expect the savings to lead to a toll decrease. Instead, officials say the greater efficiency will give them more flexibility in how and where the SJTA uses its resources, including the ability to put more money back into capital projects.

"The thought of trying to reduce tolls would be a wonderful thing, but it's not going to happen," said Gordon.


Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com.

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