DRPA may bring back commuter discounts

Vehicles approach the toll plaza at the Ben Franklin Bridge. ( David M Warren / Staff Photographer )

A $1 discount may be restored for commuters and other frequent drivers on the Ben Franklin, Walt Whitman, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry bridges.

For daily commuters, the savings could be as much as $216 a year.

Leaders of the Delaware River Port Authority board on Wednesday directed staff to begin traffic studies and cost analyses necessary to authorize the toll reductions, which would amount to $18 monthly for drivers who use a bridge at least 18 times a month.

The studies are expected to take several months, and then the full DRPA board would vote on implementing any toll discount.

The round-trip bridge toll, collected from westbound motorists, is now $5 for an automobile.

Jeffrey L. Nash, the Camden County freeholder who is vice chairman of the DRPA board, said he and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, the DRPA chairman, had agreed to seek the toll-discount studies.

That followed a request by New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) on Monday for the DRPA to reinstate toll discounts.

The DRPA, which operates the bridges and the PATCO commuter rail line between Philadelphia and South Jersey, ended commuter discounts in July 2011, after gradually reducing what had once been an $18-per-month break for frequent users.

The DRPA once gave discounts to commuters, E-ZPass users, drivers of fuel-efficient vehicles, and senior citizens.

Now, its only discount is 50 percent off for senior citizens who use a New Jersey-issued E-ZPass and provide proof of age.

Nash said the DRPA was now in a financial position to consider a commuter discount "and other tolling structure options."

The agency is about $1.6 billion in debt and has $308 million in its project fund and $418 million in its general fund.

The DRPA derives about 88 percent of its $330 million in annual revenue from bridge tolls.

"We want to make sure we don't do anything to affect our recently enhanced bond rating," Nash said. "In speaking with the lieutenant governor, we are on the same page. . . . We want to offer this relief to our customers."

The proposal comes as traffic on the bridges continues a seven-year decline.

Traffic for the first four months of this year is down about 3.7 percent from the same period in 2013, and toll revenue is down 2.8 percent.

After reaching an all-time high of 55.1 million vehicles in 2007, bridge traffic has fallen every year since. In 2013, 47.9 million vehicles crossed the four bridges.

Bridge traffic had been rising each year since 2000 until tolls were increased from $3 for cars in September 2008 to $4.

Tolls were increased to $5 on July 1, 2011.

Many other bridge and highway toll agencies give discounts to commuters, E-ZPass users, or both.

Other area toll agencies that provide discounts include the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the Delaware Memorial Bridge; the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which operates the I-78 bridge over the Delaware, among others; the Pennsylvania Turnpike; the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway; and the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway.



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