Watching the toll plaza
NJ State Trooper Mvemba Bukula, left, monitors cars at the exit 9 toll plaza westbound, on the Atlantic City Expressway, Thursday May 5, 2011, in Egg Harbor Township. The South Jersey Transportation Authority is stepping up operations to catch toll evaders. Michael Ein

A woman drove onto the Delilah Road entrance to head west on the Atlantic City Expressway, sped toward the toll booth, and then noticed Kevin Rehmann standing off to the side.

Rehmann, the security and operations manager for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, smiled as he watched her suddenly stop and look around the car for loose change. Finding none, she hurried through the toll without paying, and avoided eye contact as she passed him.

"There was no way she was going to pay," said Rehmann, who said toll evasion is a common problem on the highway.

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The SJTA has begun an effort to increase enforcement at its toll sites. State troopers are randomly stationed at the expressway's two main toll plazas and at its entrance and exit ramps to catch violators, with some waiting in the booths to radio ahead for troopers in wait.

They won't necessarily write a $500 toll-evasion ticket to everyone, but Rehmann said those doing 40 mph through a 15 mph tollbooth and who clearly did not intend to pay are likely to get ticketed.

Toll-enforcement efforts have always been maintained by the authority, and there will not necessarily be an end to this current stepped-up effort.

But the SJTA has been flooded recently with complaints from motorists reporting toll evaders. They are paying their tolls, they say, and the agency needs to stop those who don't.

"I have experienced a toll evader," reads a typical email received by Rehmann. "They rode right behind me after I have paid my $.75."

"I am just sick of it," it continued. "Cheaters."

"We get letters and emails like that all the time," authority spokeswoman Sharon Gordon said. "People are angry."

"We want to let the loyal travelers on our roadways, who are paying our tolls, know they are not paying for someone else's tolls," she added.

Every toll station on the highway has a sensor that counts how many vehicles pass through. Using those numbers and revenue figures, the authority knows about how many cars and trucks pass through without paying the toll.

The SJTA would not release those numbers, though, citing a variety of qualifications such as how people might pay later or resolve the issue with E-Z Pass that may make the numbers incorrect.

The Turnpike Authority, which operates about 300 miles of roadway with the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike compared with the SJTA's 47 miles of expressway, has said before that it loses more than $13 million annually due to toll evasion.

Rehmann said the SJTA's losses are also significant. Using photos of license plates to track vehicle owners, letters are sent to violators, with an initial $25 fine that escalates with each successive letter. Each violation generates its own set of letters and fines, and the authority has had single violators with fines totaling thousands of dollars, Rehmann said.

He provided some examples.

One person, from Cumberland County, has 22 outstanding toll violations. If he or she paid the tolls, it would have cost $63.75. If they are caught, they will owe an additional $400 in fines.

Another person, from Cape May County, has 177 unpaid toll violations. That's $180 worth of tolls, but $3,632 worth of fines.

The SJTA eventually reports violaters to the State Police if the violations are egregious and habitual, at which point police can pursue criminal charges for theft of services.

"There are times when things reach a certain level when we're going to take proactive measures and go and make an arrest so the violations don't continue," said State Police spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones.

"Our goal is not to prosecute people," Rehmann said, "but to just make them pay their fair share."

On that note, SJTA Executive Director Bart Mueller said the evaders are not just taking advantage of the authority, but also all the other drivers who pay tolls that go toward maintaining the road, expanding it, clearing it and patroling it.

"Thieves are thieves and stealing is stealing," he said. "We're going to make people accountable."

But the agency cannot go after every toll evader. With an increased state police presence at their tollbooths, and ticketing violators on the spot, they hope to keep drivers honest.

"We wouldn't do it if there weren't that many people not doing it," Rehmann said.

Gordon said avoiding tolls did not necessarily increase as the economy worsened. Driving on the toll road has decreased overall during the recession and the accompanying slump in Atlantic City.

The authority believes that the people who most often skirt tolls do it because they believe they can beat the system, not simply because they desperately need to save a few dollars and cents. The SJTA is looking for the people who switch or obscure license plates, or throw junk and foreign coins in toll baskets.

At the same time, Rehmann said, it is surprising how many people mail in 75 cents when they miss a toll, or quickly pay EZ Pass if the toll could not read their transponder.

As Rehmann stood by the Exit 9 toll on a recent sunny morning, he watched at least three cars go through without paying in about 15 minutes.

One woman clanged a quarter off the coin basket and it fell onto the ground, joining what looked like a few dollars' worth also scattered on the roadway from past drivers with poor aim.

She could not find another, apparently, and waved apologetically to Rehmann as she drove through regardless.

She and the others will likely get letters in the mail if the tollbooth cameras clearly picked up their license plates.

At one point, though, Trooper Mvemba Bukula pulled his car up to the side of the toll, and watched as people scoured their center consoles for 75 cents.

"Now they'll all pay," Rehmann said.

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