NEW JERSEY – The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission (DRJTBC) Monday approved a series of system-wide toll adjustments to offset continuing COVID-19-induced toll revenue declines, ensure payment of financial obligations, provide funding for planned capital projects throughout the agency’s Pennsylvania-New Jersey service region, and establish a two-tier pricing structure that assigns higher toll rates to cash/toll by plate transactions compared to E-ZPass transactions.
The first and broadest schedule of toll rate changes currently is scheduled to take effect April 11. When implemented, it will be the Commission’s first system-wide toll adjustment in 10 years. The second and less impactful new toll schedule is projected to take effect in January 2024.
The full schedules of toll changes may be viewed on the Commission website at www.drjtbc.org/newtolls. The most frequently paid Commission toll – passenger vehicles equipped with E-ZPass – will rise 25 cents to a $1.25 rate system-wide starting April 11.
The Commission announced its proposed toll adjustments on Feb. 1 and then conducted a 26-day public comment period that allowed motorists and residents to provide input via three virtual hearings with online or teleconferencing access, a special toll-free answering service, an online comment form portal, and U.S. Mail.
The toll adjustments affect rates for every vehicle class and authorizes an immediate elimination of the Commission’s off-peak E-ZPass truck discount (for vehicles eight-feet and above in height) and a phased-in elimination of the agency’s frequency-based E-ZPass commuter discount by early 2024. The off-peak truck discount will be eliminated April 11. The E-ZPass commuter discount will be reduced to 20 percent from the current 40-percent discount starting May 1.
One of the most significant changes in the new toll schedules is the establishment of a two-tier system of toll rates, under which cash/toll by plate customers would pay higher tolls than E-ZPass-equipped motorists. This type of pricing is a prevailing trend among toll agencies nationally because it helps cover the increased processing costs associated with cash or license-plate-billing collection methods.
Under this change, the passenger vehicle cash toll will rise to $3 from the current $1 rate at the seven Commission toll bridges that handle cash and E-ZPass transactions. Meanwhile, the E-ZPass passenger vehicle toll at the same seven toll crossings will rise by 25 cents to a $1.25 rate. The Commission has been charging this car toll rate at its new Scudder Falls (I-295) Toll Bridge since July 14, 2019.
In 2019, slightly more than 75 percent of toll transactions at DRJTBC bridges were handled by E-ZPass. In 2020, nearly 80 percent of the agency’s toll transactions were through E-ZPass – but that figure is skewed higher by emergency “Toll-by-Mail” billing that took place during the COVID spike between late March and early May. The Commission already has a two-tier pricing schedule in effect at its Scudder Falls (I-295) Toll Bridge, which already has lower E-ZPass rates and higher toll-by-plate rates. (Note: The DRJTBC classifies motor vehicles strictly by number of rolling axles and height. Tolls are assessed in the Pennsylvania-bound direction at all Commission tolling points.)
The major changes to the agency’s toll-rate schedules are summarized as follows:
- Provide a uniform toll schedule for the DRJTBC’s eight toll bridges at: Milford-Montague (Route 206), Delaware Water Gap (I-80), Portland-Columbia (Routes 611, 46 and 94), Easton-Phillipsburg (Route 22), I-78, New Hope-Lambertville (Route 202), Scudder Falls (I-295) and Trenton-Morrisville (Route 1).
- Establish a two-tier toll adjustment for Class 1 passenger vehicles starting April 11; to $1.25 for E-ZPass, $3 for cash, and $3 for toll by plate (Scudder Falls).
- Set the added toll for Class 1 passenger vehicles with bumper-hitch trailers in tow at $2 starting April 11.
- Authorize the Class 1 E-ZPass passenger vehicle toll to be $1.50 in January 2024.
- Maintain a frequency-based Class 1 E-ZPass commuter discount for 2021 through 2023 at 20 percent (applied retroactively on 16 or more trips across DRJTBC toll bridges in a calendar month with a Commission-affiliated E-ZPass tag) starting May 1.
- Eliminate the Class 1 E-ZPass commuter discount in its entirety in January 2024.
- Establish a uniform commercial vehicle rate table (Class 2 and above) and set new two-tier rates for trucks, buses and other commercial vehicles (defined as any vehicle with two or more axles and eight-feet or above in height) at $4.50 per-axle for E-ZPass, $5 per-axle for cash, and $5 per-axle for toll by plate (Scudder Falls) starting April 11.
- Eliminate the off-peak E-ZPass discount for commercial vehicles (Class 2 and above) starting April 11.
In addition to its eight highway toll bridges, the Commission owns and operates 12 non-revenue-generating “toll-supported” bridges along the fresh-water portion of the Delaware River separating New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The agency also has 73 lane miles of road surface, 34 short-distance approach bridges (overpasses or viaducts) and various other maintenance and operational facilities.
The Commission is funded strictly by the tolls it collects at its eight toll bridges. It does not receive state or federal subsidies to run its transportation system and services. The Commission is unique among other toll agencies in the region because it is legally obligated – under identical statutes enacted by both states and ratified by Congress under the Compact clause of the U.S. Constitution — to use a share of its tolls to operate and maintain 10 older low-capacity non-highway vehicular bridges and two other pedestrian-only crossings along the river. The Commission refers to these 12 spans as “toll-supported bridges.”
The proposed system-wide $1.25 Class 1 personal vehicle E-ZPass rate for 2021 will remain the lowest of any public toll agency along the Delaware River. Meanwhile, the proposed commercial vehicle rates maintain the Commission’s competitive edge for movements of overland freight across the river Pennsylvania-bound.
In 2024, the Commission would completely end the practice of incentivizing E-ZPass with discounts that many other agencies abandoned years ago. Instead, E-ZPass customers would pay lower rates than non-E-ZPass-equipped motorists and those lower rates would apply equally to an applicable E-ZPass transponder regardless of its issuing agency affiliation.
The $1.50 Class 1 personal vehicle E-ZPass rate proposed for all eight toll bridges in 2024 would be half of the $3 rate for Class 1 cash or TOLL BY PLATE customers. Two-tier pricing systems like this already are in place within the region at the Scudder Falls Toll Bridge, the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge (former Tappan Zee), at Metropolitan Transportation Authority crossings like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, New York Thruway, and bridges/tunnels operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
In announcing the proposed adjustments in February, DRJTBC Executive Director Joe Resta said the action was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession it induced. He said the Commission recorded 11.8 million fewer toll transactions than had been anticipated in 2020, a 23.6 percent decline. As a result, the Commission collected 9.36 percent less toll revenue than had been projected for 2020. Traffic and revenue declines occurred at all eight Commission toll bridges in 2020, and the downward trend has continued into 2021.
The losses in 2020 caused Commission staff to initiate an examination of the Commission’s toll schedules. In the process of that toll-structure review, staff considered other factors that had arisen since the Commission’s last system-wide toll adjustment in 2011.
The resulting toll changes, therefore, address a broader need and purpose than the COVID-19-related losses. The adjustments would establish two-tier toll pricing at all Commission toll bridges and provide funding for future capital projects.
Finally, the adjustment should enable the Commission to meet the terms of its Financial Resilience Policy aimed at improving the agency’s creditworthiness and credit rating to ensure cost-effective access to capital markets. The policy prescribes that the Commission would maintain a 2.0 Debt Service Coverage, a key benchmark for gauging a toll agency’s financial health. The policy also commits the Commission to strengthening its financial reserves, a factor that could enable the agency to conduct smaller-scale projects without the need for borrowed funds.