Drivers headed to the Jersey Shore no longer have to stop to pay tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway, with the opening Friday of high-speed E-ZPass lanes at the Egg Harbor toll plaza.
Express E-ZPass lanes were opened in 2004 at the road's other toll plaza, at Pleasantville, about 15 miles east of Egg Harbor.
For the 35 percent of expressway drivers without E-ZPass, toll collectors will remain at both plazas - for now. Expressway officials say they hope to go to all-electronic toll collection in two to four years.
"We expect E-ZPass use will go up a few percentage points" with the opening of the two high-speed lanes, said Sam Donelson, deputy executive director and chief engineer of the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the expressway and Atlantic City International Airport.
The lanes, in the center of the plaza, are expected to reduce traffic backups. Human collectors can handle about 400 tolls an hour, while the E-ZPass lanes can accommodate 1,800 vehicles. But the full benefits may not be realized for most of the summer. A third westbound high-speed E-ZPass lane won't open until August or later, as crews repair a nearby overpass struck by a truck May 9, forcing closure of the right lane and shoulder.
Expressway officials expect to phase out human collectors within a few years. The agency has 28 full-time collectors, who earn up to $29.31 an hour, and 85 part-time collectors, who make $16 an hour, Donelson said.
When all-electronic tolling is in place, the owners of cars without E-ZPass will be billed by mail, based on photos of their vehicles' license plates. Those "video customers" will pay more than E-ZPass customers to make up for the cost of mail collection.
The current toll to drive the 44-mile expressway is $3.75. About 55.6 million vehicles traveled the road in 2010, down 18 percent from 67.7 million in 2008. A toll increase in November 2008 and the opening of casinos in Southeastern Pennsylvania contributed to the decline. Traffic last month was up compared with the preceding April after falling earlier in the year, Donelson said.
The $2 million express E-ZPass project is part of a $26 million effort that has widened the roadway by adding a third lane to the 11-mile westbound stretch between the Garden State Parkway and Milepost 18.3, near Egg Harbor.