A deadline is approaching for those who owe more than $200 in tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway.

Edward Lea

The final phase of widening of the Atlantic City Expressway will start a year earlier than expected after the South Jersey Transportation Authority voted Tuesday to redirect more than $18 million from its capital budget.

Originally slated to finance the switch to all electronic tolling on the expressway this year, the $18.3 million will now be used for the third phase of the expressway widening, a new addition to the State Police 911 center at Farley Plaza and a new roof for the Atlantic City International Airport terminal needed due to damage sustained in the June derecho storm.

Of the total, about $15 million will pay for the widening project, though the exact amount won't be determined until a contract is awarded. Bids are due Oct. 11.

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SJTA plans to award a contract for the widening by November and construction will begin by the start of 2013. The project is expected to take 12 months and should be complete by early 2014, acting Executive Director Sam Donelson said.

About $300,000 will pay for the roof, and $3 million will finance a 2,000-square-foot addition to the State Police call center at Farley Plaza in Egg Harbor Township, which dispatches all emergency calls on the expressway.

The third phase of the widening will extend from mileposts 25 to 31 — beyond the Farley Plaza rest stop to the Route 73 exit in Winslow Township, Camden County. There, a third westbound lane will be added to ease congestion, helping to relieve the summer backups that occur when visitors head home after weekends at the shore.

While SJTA officials said they are pleased to see the widening project moving forward, some board members were concerned about the delay of the expressway’s plans for all electronic tolling. Under the new system — for which the SJTA already has a design and all the needed permits — drivers would pay through E-Z Pass or would receive a bill in the mail for the tolls they accumulated.

The electronic toll project, which would include removing existing toll booths and installing overhead scanners, is budgeted at $36.5 million, about half of which was redirected to the expressway widening. Donelson said its unclear how the electronic tolling will fit into the authority’s future capital budgets.

“Hopefully the funding will be there when we’re ready to do (all electronic tolling),” Commissioner Jeffery April said.

State Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, who chairs the SJTA board, said the authority’s plans for the electronic system, also referred to as AET, are “light-years ahead of the rest of the state,” which includes the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike.

However, he said, several steps must be taken before a fully automated system will work.

The SJTA would need to develop reciprocity programs with other states to ensure that out-of-state residents who skirt their toll bills could still be compelled to pay. That’s particularly important for Pennsylvania residents who travel the expressway to South Jersey’s shore towns, he said.

Both the SJTA and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority have recently implemented programs in partnership with the state Motor Vehicle Commission to suspend registrations of the most egregious toll offenders until bills are paid. Those programs however, only affect New Jersey residents.

“All of these things need to be in place before AET because we can’t jeopardize our toll revenue,” Simpson said. “Because of the changes to the capital budget, we can take a look at other projects that are desperately needed. ... To get this (expressway widening) project going will have a big bang for the authority.”

Construction on the first phase of the project from milepost 7.7 to 17.5, the Egg Harbor toll plaza, began in September 2009. The second phase, which extended from the toll plaza to milepost 25, wrapped up construction in July.

The SJTA has requested bids for the roof replacement at the airport and plans to begin construction there before the end of the year. Several leaks developed following the destructive June thunderstorms, Donelson said. The authority hopes to later be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the work.

A design is in place for the expansion to the 911 center, and environmental permits have been secured for the addition that will house the dispatchers. Construction will likely begin in December and will take between nine and 12 months, Donelson said.

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