EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Be careful, motorists, someone may be watching you.
Usually, there are no workers stationed at Exit 9 heading westbound onto the Atlantic City Expressway in Egg Harbor Township. It is one of the expressway’s automated, exact-change toll booths that depend on the honesty of motorists to pay their fares if they don’t have the electronic E-ZPass system.
But occasionally, an expressway employee hides inside the cramped booth, and peers out from a tiny window at unsuspecting drivers who violate the toll. When that happens, the employee uses a hand-held radio to call a State Police trooper stationed ahead to nab the toll cheat.
The crackdown is part of a pilot program that began in 2012 targeting the most egregious toll violators on the expressway, the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike. Encouraged by the success of the program, the expressway is going to make it even tougher by imposing bigger fines that match those already handed out on the parkway and turnpike.
“This has been a very effective program for us. We’re getting the biggest bang for the buck,” said Kevin Rehmann, a spokesman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operating agency.
Rehmann insisted the clampdown isn’t intended to wring more money out of expressway motorists. Instead, the ideal is to catch the most habitual offenders who have racked up hundreds of dollars in unpaid tolls, or more.
“The goal isn’t to make money on these people,” Rehmann said. “They should pay the toll.”
By this summer, the expressway will increase the fine, formally known as an administrative fee, from $25 to $50 for each toll violation. The $50 fine is what the parkway and turnpike have been charging since 2011. Toll cheaters are on the hook for not only the $50, but also the fare they didn’t pay in the first place.
When the crackdown began in 2012, the expressway, parkway and turnpike compiled a “most wanted” list of the most serious toll cheaters and threatened to have the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission revoke their vehicle registrations.
The expressway went after individual motorists or companies owing at least $200 in unpaid tolls. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, operator of the turnpike and parkway, began pursuing toll violators who owed at least $1,000.
Since 2012, the expressway has collected about $66,500 in unpaid tolls through the pilot program, Rehmann said. The turnpike and parkway, which are much bigger and heavier traveled roads than the expressway, collected a total of $21.5 million from toll violators in 2012 and $24.6 million in 2013.
“We send three notices to violators,” New Jersey Turnpike Authority spokesman Tom Feeney explained of the process. “If they fail to pay, they are reported to the credit bureaus and turned over to a collection agency. They could be turned over to the State Police for investigation of theft of services, or they could have their registration privileges suspended.”
Rehmann noted that the expressway’s threshold of $200 in unpaid tolls rises to the level of an indictable offense. He said the expressway hasn’t filed criminal charges against toll cheaters since late 2012 or early 2013, but has continued to seek to have their registrations revoked.
The first batch of letters threatening revocations was mailed to nearly 150 expressway toll violators in 2012. Up to this point, 70 of those people or companies have responded by making good on their tolls or setting up a payment schedule, Rehmann said. The expressway is preparing to send out another round of letters to the most persistent toll violators, including some who were originally targeted but did not pay up.
Signs are posted at every expressway toll booth warning of the consequences of skirting the fares, including the possible fines if police issue a ticket. “State Police enforce toll evasion. Up to $500.00 fine,” reads one sign at Exit 9 westbound.
Exit 9 and other toll plazas are equipped with E-ZPass, the increasingly popular automated fare-collection system used by more than 70 percent of the expressway’s motorists. But the expressway toll plazas also have an exact-change lane for motorists who pay the old-fashioned way — by coming to a complete stop and dumping coins into the basket.
Toll violators who blow through the E-ZPass lanes are caught by technology. The E-ZPass surveillance cameras snap a picture of their license plates and a violation notice is mailed to them. In 2011, the parkway began using the same electronic surveillance system in its E-ZPass lanes to catch violators in the exact-change toll booths.
“A lot of violations in the coin lanes were going undetected before that change,” Feeney said.
Occasionally, the expressway will have state troopers patrol the toll booths and exit ramps to catch toll cheats. Other times, expressway employees secretly watch from inside the unmanned toll booths and radio ahead to troopers when a violator is spotted.
“You would be amazed at the deceptive practices they do,” Rehmann said of some of the toll cheaters. “Sometimes, people will take their arm and make believe they are paying the toll.”
Counterfeit coins are another ploy. Rehmann also described how some thieves will clog up the toll baskets with cups or paper and return later to steal the coins that are left there.
Overall, toll violators cost the expressway about 2 percent or 3 percent in lost revenue, Rehmann said. Last year, the expressway collected $76.1 million in toll revenue, so 2 percent to 3 percent of that figure would represent around $1.5 million to $2.3 million.
The expressway has been encouraging motorists to enroll in the E-ZPass program to avoid the hassles of paying tolls the old-fashioned way. Rehmann said the E-ZPass technology has developed to the point where there are extremely few false toll violations charged to motorists. He also dismissed the worries of some drivers that E-ZPass is a high-tech “Big Brother” that could be abused by the government to spy on them or keep track of their movements.
“Absent a court order or a subpoena, we can’t give out E-ZPass information on people,” Rehmann said.
Although the expressway has stepped up its efforts to catch violators, it does have a program to help those who missed paying the tolls — either intentionally or by accident. Motorists are given a 48-hour grace period to pay the missed toll. They may stop at the Egg Harbor or Pleasantville plazas and pay a toll collector there. They may also pay in person at the South Jersey Transportation Authority administrative office at the expressway’s Farley Service Plaza in Hamilton Township.