By Donald Wittkowski
Toll collector Arthur Sparks nodded at the motorist who pulled up to pay his fare Monday afternoon on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge and told him, “How are you doing there, buddy? We now have E-ZPass.”
Sparks’ greeting was simple, but the meaning behind his words was monumental. After decades of having to pay their fares the old-fashioned way, motorists now have the option of using the automated E-ZPass system when crossing over the toll bridge into Ocean City.
For them, that means no more fumbling for cash or coins to pay the toll. The slow and cumbersome process inevitably backs up traffic on the bridge, especially during the busy summer tourism season.
Culminating a nearly two-year effort, the Cape May County Bridge Commission is installing the E-ZPass system on the five seashore bridges it operates along the scenic Ocean Drive coastal route.
The bridge commission originally planned a toll hike coinciding with the arrival of E-ZPass, but later backed off. The toll will remain $1.50.
The Ocean City-Longport Bridge was the first to get E-ZPass on Monday. The Middle Thorofare Bridge will be next on or about May 7, followed by the Grassy Sound Bridge on or about May 14 and the Corsons Inlet Bridge on or about May 21.
The Townsends Inlet Bridge connecting Sea Isle City with Avalon was supposed to go live with E-ZPass by June 25, but it now appears the date will be pushed up to Memorial Day weekend, if not sooner.
“I’m expecting to have all of the bridges on E-ZPass before the Memorial Day weekend,” said Karen Coughlin, the bridge commission’s executive director.
Although E-ZPass will be available on all of the bridges, cash and discount tickets will still be accepted as well. Even those vehicles with E-ZPass transponders will have the option to make payments with bridge tickets versus E-ZPass transactions, Coughlin said.
The discount tickets cost $1.20, compared to the regular toll of $1.50. Coughlin noted that the bridges will continue to accept tickets through the summer. After that, the bridge commission will be introducing an E-ZPass discount program to replace the tickets.
E-ZPass revolutionizes the toll-collection system on the Cape May County Bridge Commission network. For decades, motorists have had to endure the same slow-motion ritual for paying their fares – come to a complete stop at the toll plaza and hand over their cash and coins to the collector.
“Now, they won’t have to have cash in their hand. I think that’s got to be the biggest benefit,” Coughlin said of the convenience of E-ZPass.
The E-ZPass system will make the bridges compatible with major toll roads 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.
While E-ZPass promises to speed up the flow of traffic somewhat on the bridges, Coughlin stressed that motorists won’t zip through the toll plazas in the same way as the Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway. They will still have to wait for the toll plaza’s gate-like “arm” to be raised to let them pass through.
“People are not flying through,” Coughlin said. “It’s faster, but it’s not speeding. We made sure these people are stopping.”
To alleviate fears of E-ZPass traffic zooming through the toll plaza at high speeds, gates were installed on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge to slow drivers down. Cape May County has also installed a pedestrian crosswalk near the bridge to improve safety.
Perhaps the most noticeable change to motorists will be the signs approaching the toll plazas. Previously, drivers were greeted on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge by a sign that declared “No E-ZPass” in red letters. Now, the signs say “E-ZPass Accepted.”
“They are very happy about it,” toll collector Arthur Sparks said. “They feel it’s going to speed things up a bit.”
Coughlin noted that most of the calls she receives at the bridge commission’s office are from motorists who question or complain about the lack of E-ZPass. Those calls are now expected to stop.
“The comments we’re getting are pretty nice. They’re saying, ‘Hooray, you have it here. It’s finally working,’” Coughlin said of the reactions Monday on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge.