Buses that regularly bring visitors into Atlantic City may get a break from tolls based on a bill recently passed by the state Senate.
The plan, which would allow buses that travel at least once a week to the casinos to be exempt from tolls along the state's major highways - the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway - is awaiting review by the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee.
Assemblymen Chris Brown and John Amodeo, both R-Atlantic, are among the sponsors of the Assemby bill. Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, is a sponsor of the Senate version of the bill.
The bill is intended to provide an opportunity for increased bus traffic to Atlantic City. The traffic has been steadily decreasing for years.
"We can increase revenues by getting New Jersey residents to New Jersey casinos," said Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, D-Bergen, Passaic, the bill's primary sponsor.
"This is a step in the right direction," Jim Murphy, owner of Wallington-based Saddle River Tours, said. The bus service makes at least 10 trips per day to casinos in the city.
It is cheaper to get to Pennsylvania and New York casinos, because there are fewer or no tolls on highways leading to both destinations, so the lower ticket prices are attracting more visitors, Murphy said. By giving buses an exemption from tolls on the way to Atlantic City, it can "keep (operational) costs in control."
Removing the approximately $20 roundtrip expense would help level the playing field a bit, Murphy said.
"If you just look at the trend of how buses to Atlantic City have diminished," he said, the exemption is "a great opportunity for Atlantic City" to compete with Pennsylvania casinos.
Statistics from the South Jersey Transportation Authority show that from January to April this year, casino bus traffic fell 24 percent, or about 10,000 fewer buses than in that time frame last year.
Texas-based Greyhound Lines Inc. also is optimistic about the potential relief from tolls.
"It is a benefit, because it would encourage ridership to Atlantic City," spokesman Maurice Harris said. "It allows us to run the routes more cost-effectively and efficiently and gives us the opportunity to pass on the benefits to the customers."
Harris said it could not be determined whether bus fares on Atlantic City lines would be reduced as a direct result.
But the optimism from travelers and bus operators is not mirrored by the two roadway authorities - the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and the SJTA - that could see reductions in revenue as a result.
"While we applaud the legislators' effort to encourage increased bus traffic to Atlantic City, the bill as written appears to be contrary to our bond covenants by ... reducing recurring revenue that is pledged to our bondholders," Sam Donelson, acting executive director of the SJTA, wrote in an email Thursday.
Donelson added that the authority relies on toll revenue on the expressway for maintenance and improvement projects.
"An example of such an improvement is the expressway's 24-mile widening that is in its third and final phase, which increased capacity in that section of the expressway by roughly 50 percent," Donelson said.
But Eustace said the authorities already are missing out on the tolls, because those buses are leaving the state.
"Even if we can turn it around a little bit (declining revenues), it's worth it," he said.
He said the inspiration for the bill came from his observations when he was the mayor of Maywood, a small Bergen County town, from 2008 to 2012.
Eustace recalled watching people "get on the bus downtown and go to casinos in Pennsylvania or New York, because there are no tolls."
Part of the reason he favors the toll exemption is the continuing decline of revenue from Atlantic City, which Eustace said is more than 40 percent in the past three years. It is a hole that needed to be filled in the state budget, he said.
The decline is directly related to the competing casinos in other states, Eustace said, and he decided that exemption from tolls would help bus operators cut costs and offer more affordable tickets.
"We usually come to Atlantic City because it's closer, but sometimes we go to Empire (City Casino in Yonkers, N.Y.)," said Nelly Rodriguez, of Hackensack, Bergen County, after she arrived on a bus Thursday at Bally's Atlantic City. "I like coming to Atlantic City. ... There's a lot that they offer around here. Even though (casinos) are opened up in other areas, Atlantic City takes care of the people when they get here."
A group of women on another bus that arrived at Resorts Casino Hotel said Atlantic City has become less affrodable to travel to.
"It used to be $25, now it's $30 (for a bus ticket)," said Mary Parrotta, of Hamilton Township, Mercer County.
The prices should go down if tolls are removed from the bus cost, said Helen Ilijic, of Robbinsville, Mercer County.
Under the legislation, which passed the Senate on June 24, buses would be issued a transponder to allow them through toll lanes, but they must be visiting Atlantic City. If a bus uses the transponder while traveling through a toll booth and is ineligible for the exemption, the driver could face a fine of $500 for the first offense or $1,000 for all subsequent offenses. In addition, they will be required to reimburse the appropriate roadway authority for the toll amounts.
To ensure compliance with the once-a-week requirement, the state's Motor Vehicle Commission will be charged with an annual review, according to the bill.
How this would be achieved has not been decided by the state Department of Transportation, SJTA or the Turnpike Authority. It could, for example, mean checking bus records or verifying through contact with the casinos.
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