"The bureaucratic equivalent of a rush-hour pileup."
April 27, 2002
By AMY WESTFELDT
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Motorists' mailboxes are stuffed with $25 fines for 35-cent tolls they say they paid. Trucking companies have assigned employees to do nothing but argue bogus violations. One man was charged for tolls as many as 30 times while he was home on the sofa for a week, recovering from open heart surgery.
New Jersey's E-ZPass electronic toll system was supposed to make things, well, easy by relieving traffic jams, reducing pollution and letting commuters sail past toll booths without stopping to fumble for change.
Instead, it has become the bureaucratic equivalent of a rush-hour pileup.
After committing more than $300 million to the system, New Jersey is confronted with motorists who complain they are fined for violations they never committed or billed for driving in places they never were. The state has suspended installation of the system for a four-month review and launched legislative hearings to find out who is responsible.
"It just wasn't ready for prime time," Stephen Carrellas, New Jersey coordinator of the National Motorists Association, "because of all the conniptions it put motorists through."
The foul-ups have added to the miseries of driving in the Garden State, where motorists already pay the highest auto insurance rates in the nation and where the recent introduction of a $400 million auto-emission inspection system was bungled.
About two dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois and California, are adopting or already using electronic tolls with varying degrees of success. But no other state has had as many problems as New Jersey.
The state adopted E-ZPass in 1999. Motorists attach electronic devices called transponders to their windshields. When they drive through a toll booth, the system automatically deducts the toll from their credit card or from a prepaid account. Cameras photograph the license plates of toll beaters, and violations are mailed to the car's owner.
MFS Network Technologies was awarded the contract of nearly $500 million to install E-ZPass. A regional consortium headed by New Jersey borrowed $300 million of that by issuing bonds. But the remaining $190 million was to be paid for by the $25 fines collected from toll cheats.
That, at least, was the idea. Instead, between 1999 and 2001, it cost the state $19.2 million to collect $13.3 million in fines.
New Jersey is the only state to rely so heavily on toll violations to finance the system, and the only state to put no money down.
"Nobody else in this nation has premised the creation of their system on the notion that money collected from toll violators would be able to pay for it," said state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, whose Transportation Committee is holding hearings on E-ZPass. "We shouldn't allow it to happen again."
E-ZPass drivers say they are being driven crazy by bogus violations that force them to spend hours on the telephone and run up postage costs to resolve.
Ed Ruotolo, 73, of Monroe Township, had open heart surgery during a week in 2000 when his E-ZPass account had him driving 20 to 30 times on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.
"I wasn't allowed to drive," Ruotolo said. "I was laying down on the sofa here." He said his account was later corrected by officials who told him the transponder was not working properly.
At Wakefern Food Corp., which employs 400 truck drivers to deliver to Shop-Rite supermarkets, two people have been assigned full time to do nothing but try to resolve inaccuracies in monthly bills. Truckers are either fined for not having E-ZPass or are overcharged, said Wakefern director of transportation Charlie Amorosi.
"If we get on at (Exit) 13 and get off at 11, we might get billed for the entire length" of the turnpike, Amorosi said.
New Jersey has issued 1.6 million of the transponders. Various other agencies in the New York metropolitan area have issued an estimated 3.2 million more, and drivers can use the E-ZPass system from Massachusetts to West Virginia. But the lion's share of violations and complaints have come through New Jersey.
Some contractors who built the system say the transponders are not working properly; others blame the antennas the transponders are supposed to connect to. E-ZPass operators have also said that motorists sometimes take their transponder off the windshield because they are afraid it will get stolen, then wave it outside the car, where it might not register.
MFS paid the state millions of dollars in fines for missing construction deadlines. Adesta Communications of Omaha, Neb., later bought MFS, then filed for bankruptcy and sold the E-ZPass contract to WorldCom Inc.
"We've kind of gotten out of that business. We really don't have any comments on that job," Adesta spokeswoman Keri Larson said.
WorldCom said last month that it would work to improve customer service.
Officials in Gov. Christie Whitman's administration who brought E-ZPass to the state have since left office along with Whitman herself. Former Whitman spokesman Pete McDonough referred questions to former Transportation Commissioner James Weinstein, who did not return a call.
Gov. James E. McGreevey asked the former head of the system, New Jersey Turnpike Authority executive director Edward Gross, to leave and suspended expansion of E-ZPass, which is in place in 360 lanes and awaiting installation in nearly 380 more.
Many motorists and others say they love how E-ZPass can let them cruise through while other cars languish in cash-only lanes.
"It's wonderful when it works," Ruotolo said. But when the bill comes, "all it is is a load of aggravation." Find these links at SouthCoastToday.com: http://www.ezpass.com Toll roads newsletter: http://www.tollroads.com
© 2007 The Associated Press:
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