By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The agency that oversees the five toll bridges connecting Cape May County’s seashore towns along the Ocean Drive is keeping fares the same for the time being.
Karen Coughlin, executive director of the Cape May County Bridge Commission, indicated that a toll increase will likely be needed at some point, but the timing is uncertain.
“We are unsure when there will be a toll increase. We know one needs to be done but have no set dates or amounts,” Coughlin said in an email Thursday.
In the meantime, the commission has approved a $3.9 million operating budget for 2020. The budget projects toll revenue of $2.9 million for the year from the bridges under its control. The balance of the budget consists of reimbursements for debt service payments from Cape May County, Coughlin said.
For now, tolls will remain $1.50 on the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, Townsends Inlet Bridge, Corsons Inlet Bridge, Middle Thorofare Bridge and Grassy Sound Bridge along the scenic Ocean Drive coastal route.
Bridge tolls have not been raised since 2009. The commission announced plans for a fare hike in 2017 to help pay for the introduction of the E-ZPass electronic toll collection system on the bridges.
It later backed off raising tolls in 2017, after deciding that a fare hike during the summer tourism rush would have been complicated and confusing for motorists.
Under the proposed 2017 toll hike, the bridge 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. However, those plans remain in limbo.
Motorists have the option of paying their tolls with E-ZPass, 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.
In the past, the agency has not ruled out the possibility of a toll hike to help the county finance a major bridge construction program, including the possible replacement of the aging Townsends Inlet and Middle Thorofare spans.
The commission does not have a capital budget, so it relies on county funding for bridge projects. The county is currently working on the 2020 capital budget and expects to adopt it early next year, Coughlin said.
Coughlin said the commission continues to consider replacing the Townsends Inlet and Middle Thorofare bridges, but there is “nothing new at this time.”
The Townsends Inlet Bridge linking Sea Isle City and Avalon went through an $8.6 million overhaul that took 10 months to complete and forced its closure through part of the peak summer tourism season.
Before the bridge reopened in late July, motorists were required to follow lengthy detours to travel between both towns instead of taking a short hop across the bridge.