LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Commuters lament the pending loss of the GWB carpool discount

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

On his daily commute to New York, Armando Justino stops to pick up riders from among the gaggle that gather on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge and in so doing shrinks his toll from $15 to $6.50.

But now, as it prepares to install a cashless tolling system at the bridge and all of its Hudson River crossings, the Port Authority is putting the brakes on its carpooling discount, as of next month.

“Come on, give a break to the citizen,” Justino said.

The problem, according to the bi-state agency, stems from the same thing that makes cashless tolling attractive. With no toll booths, drivers get to pass by at speed, as electronic readers either hit their E-ZPass or take license plate photos to mail bills to their home addresses. But along with the disappearance of toll booths goes the human beings inside who, by counting the occupants of a vehicle, ensured that it was entitled to the carpool discount.

“The reality is that the technology is not to the extent that we can, kind of, move along with the car discount without having a disruption,” said PA Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Kevin O’Toole.

Two North Jersey congressman, Democrats Josh Gottheimer and Bill Pascrell, want the agency to reconsider. And they maintained that the technology exists to count occupants electronically, without using human beings.

“In at least three states, they’re actually using the technology,” Gottheimer said as he stood at the bridge. “They have cameras that allow for cashless tolling that can tell how many people are in the vehicle and solve the problem that the Port Authority is concerned about.”

One example cited by the congressman — the FasTrak system in California — does not have the technology to count occupants currently in place. Rather, to get a FasTrak carpool discount, drivers self-report how many are in a vehicle, by setting a windshield tag to display the number of occupants.

Ultimately, the system relies on humans — California Highway Patrol officers — to do visual checks to confirm that the display matches the occupancy number.

And a three-month pilot program in California last year of three automated detection systems found “relatively low system accuracy rates … suggest the technology is not ready for… a full-scale deployment.”

The Port Authority says if and when reliable technology becomes available, it would revisit this issue.

Still, Gottheimer called the elimination of the discount a new tax, one that will cost drivers an average of $2,100 a year.

“Right now, in a moment where we need to do anything we can to lower taxes for people, make life more affordable, reduce congestion over the bridge and help the environment,” he said, “we’re considering eliminating the carpool lane, which dates back to 1974 and was put in place all for the purpose of helping the environment, reducing traffic and reducing costs for our drivers.”

The Port Authority says only a small percentage of George Washington Bridge commuters carpool. But those who do benefit say the loss will hurt.

“They should be fair. For all these people that we help each other,” one driver said.

“That’s going to be bad. We need that,” another carpooler said.

One rider said he will now either walk or take public transit. Buses charge from $1.85 to $3 to get to cross the bridge.

None of which was much help for Justino.

“So, every single day, I’m going to have a problem with my boss because I’m late with the public transportation,” he said. “The easy way I can do it so far is driving to the city.”

As of Jan. 5, the cash toll to cross the bridge, as well as the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, goes from $15 to $16, a hike of nearly 7%.