ATLANTIC CITY — You pull up to one of those toll plazas on the Atlantic City Expressway that has only the exact-change machines and suddenly a voice inside you grows stronger and stronger.

“Don’t pay the toll,” it urges.

No toll collectors are around, so no one will even notice, right?

Well, as powerful as that temptation may be, the folks at the expressway have a few words of advice: Don’t do it. We’re watching you.

The expressway is in the process of upgrading the surveillance cameras and other equipment at its toll plazas to catch toll cheaters.

“There are significant ramifications if you don’t pay and you don’t contact us,” said Kevin Rehmann, a spokesman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operating agency.

Frank Frankowski, the authority’s interim executive director, warned that the toll upgrades will “improve violation-enforcement activities.”

The crackdown stems from a program that began in 2012 to nab the most egregious toll violators. Currently, 149 people have entered into agreements with the authority to pay $426,700 in outstanding tolls and administrative fees. So far, the authority has collected about $138,000 from them, Rehmann said.

“The goal is not to make money on administrative fees. The goal is to get people to pay their tolls,” he said.

Fines for unpaid tolls are technically called administrative fees. The expressway increased the fee from $25 to $50 last summer to match the fines handed out by the state’s two other toll roads, the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike. Toll cheaters are on the hook for not only the $50, but also the fare they didn’t pay in the first place.

Motorists risk having their vehicle registrations revoked if they don’t pay up. Rehmann, however, stressed that the expressway isn’t looking to suspend the registrations of motorists who may have missed paying one or even a few tolls. Those who have been targeted owe at least $200 in unpaid tolls.

“Two hundred dollars is a lot of toll violations. I think we’re being pretty fair,” Rehmann said.

The expressway’s $200 threshold in unpaid tolls rises to the level of an indictable offense under New Jersey theft laws, so that’s why the expressway chose that amount.

Currently, the expressway has scheduled hearings to revoke the registrations of 120 alleged toll violators, Rehmann noted.

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, operator of the turnpike and parkway, has also been aggressively pursuing toll violators, agency spokesman Tom Feeney said.

“Unpaid accounts are turned over to collection agencies and reported to the credit bureaus,” Feeney said. “The authority takes action to suspend the vehicle registration privileges of the worst offenders.”

Just like the expressway, the turnpike and parkway have been upgrading the cameras and other pieces of the toll-surveillance equipment as they reach the end of their useful lives.

“It’s an ongoing process,” Feeney explained. “That’s how we keep the technology current.”

Eventually, the toll booths that have stood on the expressway, parkway and turnpike for decades will fade into history. All three roads have been discussing plans to convert to a completely automated E-ZPass toll collection system.

“The future is going to be all electronic tolls,” Rehmann said. “We’re ready to go. We’re just waiting for the parkway and turnpike to go cashless.”

Motorists who don’t have E-ZPass still have the option of paying the old-fashioned way — stopping at the toll booths that have human toll takers or exact-change machines.

The expressway has been installing new surveillance cameras and toll-counting equipment at the toll booths to make sure motorists pay their fares. The new toll-counting equipment replaces technology that Rehmann acknowledged is “just old stuff.”

The future of toll collection is already represented at the expressway’s Exit 17 at Route 50 in Hamilton Township. No toll booths exist there. Instead, motorists pass under an overhead gantry equipped with E-ZPass scanners and surveillance cameras.

If a motorist doesn’t have an E-ZPass transponder at Exit 17, the cameras snap a photo of the license plate and record it as a toll violation. A violation notice is then mailed to the motorist, along with a bill for the $50 administrative fee.

“This is part of the upgrades we are testing at our other locations,” Rehmann said of Exit 17’s technology.

High-tech cameras and scanners are a big advance from the surveillance techniques the expressway has used in the past at the exact-change toll plazas. Occasionally, expressway employees hide inside the cramped booths and peer out from a tiny window at unsuspecting motorists. If a motorist doesn’t pay the fare, the employees can radio to a State Police trooper stationed ahead to pull over the toll cheater.

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, or at the South Jersey Transportation Authority administrative office at the expressway’s Farley Service Plaza in Hamilton Township.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258

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