By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Tolls were up. Traffic was down.
In a nutshell, that’s what happened in 2022 on the five toll bridges linking the Cape May County beach communities.
Toll revenue surged in 2022 following a 50-cent fare hike that began last March, but traffic volume declined overall, according to year-end figures released Thursday by the Cape May County Bridge Commission.
The commission’s five bridges serve the shore towns from Ocean City to Cape May along the scenic Ocean Drive. They include the Ocean City-Longport Bridge, the Corsons Inlet Bridge (between Ocean City and Strathmere), the Townsends Inlet Bridge (between Sea Isle City and Avalon), the Grassy Sound Bridge (between Stone Harbor and North Wildwood) and the Middle Thorofare Bridge (between Wildwood Crest and Cape May).
The bridge toll is currently $2. Tolls will increase another 50 cents this year and will go up an additional 50 cents in 2024 as part of a three-stage fare hike approved by the commission in 2021 to generate additional revenue for bridge maintenance and repair projects.
In 2022, the 50-cent toll hike helped to boost total revenue on the five bridges to nearly $4.1 million, a 25 percent increase compared to about $3.3 million in 2021. Each bridge generated higher revenue in 2022, the figures show.
However, the amount of traffic using the five bridges declined 6.5 percent in 2022, to 2,187,332 vehicles overall. In 2021, there were 2,338,697 vehicles.
Members of the bridge commission’s board said there was no clear-cut reason to explain why traffic was down. However, they noted that the toll hike helped to offset the decline in traffic.
“So the toll increase helped?” Chairwoman Carol Brand asked during the commission’s monthly board meeting Thursday.
“Yes,” Executive Director Karen Coughlin replied.
Coughlin characterized it as a “weird” year overall for traffic. She said there were swings in the amount of traffic throughout 2022, possibly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer tourism season.
“Things might be balancing out at this point,” she said.
The next 50-cent toll increase is scheduled to begin March 15, which will raise the bridge fare to $2.50. The commission plans to notify the public a few weeks in advance before the toll hike takes effect.
The commission will also raise the toll by 50 cents in 2024, bringing it to $3 at that time.
With the toll increases, revenue is projected to increase to $5.1 million in 2023 and $6.1 million in 2024. The nearly $4.1 million in revenue that was realized in 2022 was close to the $4.2 million in revenue that the commission had projected.
Previously, the commission depended on Cape May County to finance all of the maintenance, repairs and upgrades to the bridges. The toll hikes will give the commission its own funding to help pay for its maintenance and repairs projects.
The Townsends Inlet, Corsons Inlet, Middle Thorofare and Grassy Sound bridges date to the 1930s or 1940s and are often in need of maintenance or repair projects to keep the aging spans in operation.
The Ocean City-Longport Bridge, built in 2002, is the commission’s only modern span, but the commission said that maintenance and upkeep are needed on a newer bridge, too.
About 85 percent of the bridge customers pay their fares using the E-ZPass automated toll system. Most of the other customers pay in cash, but a small number of motorists still use the paper toll tickets once sold by the bridge commission, Coughlin said.
The commission stopped selling the tickets starting in 2018 when it introduced the E-ZPass system. However, there are old tickets still out there that have no expiration date, allowing motorists to use them indefinitely for a discount in the toll rate.
The paper tickets allow motorists to pay just $1.20 for the toll. In December, 463 tickets were redeemed, Coughlin said.
Coughlin is urging motorists to use the rest of their tickets so that the bridge commission will no longer have to handle the old-fashioned paper transactions.