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Are higher EZPass and gas prices lowering the number of area toll road users? A surprising answer

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With recent record high temperatures, newly hiked gas prices, an arguably inequitable EZPass toll charging structure and a regional coastline still recovering from super-storm Sandy, it’s sensible to wonder if the volume of motorists on major toll roads in our area have decreased this summer travel season.  It’s also reasonable to probe the issue when it’s been suggested by one’s boss, as was the case for this story.

A recent trip by PIX11’s news director from the Jersey Shore to North Jersey in record fast time got him and the PIX11 newsroom wondering if there was a lowered use of toll roads, such as the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike, compared with a year ago.  What follows is an exploration of reasons why the numbers could be depressed, followed by an analysis of anecdotal and hard data.

“$3.38 a gallon,” a Long Island motorist who owns a vacation home on the Jersey Shore told us he’d paid for a gallon of gas a week ago along the Parkway.  “I know they change over [the price] on Fridays.  $3.55” was what he’d paid per gallon this past weekend.

The 17 cents-per-gallon hike in the cost of fuel makes a trip along New Jersey toll roads more pricey certainly, but the gas price is still among the lowest in the region, and in the Garden State, gas station attendants are required to pump your gas for you.  It’s apparently not a major factor in lowering traffic volume.

A factor that somebody might argue could lower the number of people driving — especially if that somebody is AAA — is what a motorist is charged for using EZPass out-of-state.

Many drivers don’t realize that most states within the EZPass system, which operates across a 14-state triangle whose corners are Maine, Virginia and Illinois, charge a higher toll for out-of-state drivers.  In some cases in the New York / New Jersey / Connecticut Tri State region, the difference in toll amounts is noticeably great.

The price charged to travel the entire New Jersey Turnpike is $10.40 for New Jersey residents with EZPass.  Out-of-state drivers pay $13.85, which is the same price cash-paying drivers pay.  On the Garden State Parkway, all drivers pay the same price.

Across the Hudson in New York, however, the inequities are greater.  On MTA major crossings, such as the RFK Triboro Bridge or the Queens Midtown Tunnel, EZPass is $4.80 for residents, but out-of-staters have to pay $6.50, which is the same as they’d pay if paying with cash.

At MTA minor crossings, like the Cross Bay and Marine Parkway Bridges, which connect Brooklyn and Queens with the Rockaways, in-staters pay $1.80, but for out-of-staters, the price jumps to $3.25.

The Henry Hudson Bridge, which connects the Bronx and Manhattan, the difference between New York EZPass and out-of-state devices is nearly double.  Local EZPass users pay $2.20 to cross the double-decker span across the Spuyten Duyvil waterway, while everybody else is charged $4.00.

At Port Authority crossings, such as the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, and George Washington Bridge, it’s the same price for EZPass for in-state and out-of-state drivers, although cash paying drivers are charged a 26 percent higher toll.

The overall differences evoke this response from the American Automobile Association:  “It just goes to show, we think, what happens when fiscal mismanagement sets in,” said Robert Sinclair, spokesperson for the New York branch of motorist advocacy organization.

“They’re singing ‘we’re stronger than the storm,'” Sinclair said about New Jersey’s ad campaign to promote tourism.  “Give ’em a little bit of a break,” he said, calling for all EZPass tolls region-wide to be equal.

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Is traffic really down on the Garden State Parkway?

“We really need to see the legislation that they’re proposing before we comment on it,” said Tom Feeney, spokesperson for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, in response to AAA’s complaint.  As Feeney alluded, the only way AAA might realize its goal of toll equity would be to propose legislation, which it has not yet done formally, even though the effort is well underway.

So how strongly is the combination of toll inequity and higher summer gas prices affecting traffic volume on New Jersey toll roads?  An unscientific survey of drivers at the rest stop closest to the junction of the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike may offer some insight.

“It seems more crowded to me,” said a driver who lives in New York City, but commutes several times a week to the Jersey Shore, regarding traffic volume on the route she normally takes.  Her observation was confirmed by other roadway users, such as the passenger in a car that frequently drives down the Garden State Parkway to Exit 38.  “To me, it seems more crowded going to Atlantic City,” she said.

Monthly traffic volume numbers reported by the Turnpike Authority from November 2012 to May 2013, the latest figures available, support the anecdotal evidence from drivers.  Traffic volume, when adjusted for two major winter storms during that period, said Turnpike Authority spokesperson Tom Feeney, was slightly higher than the same period a year earlier.

As for PIX11’s news director hitting record low traffic recently on his trip home from the Jersey Shore, Feeney said, “He just got lucky.”