By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The operating agency for five toll bridges in Cape May County will hold off on a fare increase in 2024 as a way to promote more tourism to the shore while also giving cost-conscious motorists a break.
Tolls were scheduled to increase by 50 cents this year on the Ocean City-Longport, Townsends Inlet, Corson’s Inlet, Grassy Sound and Middle Thorofare bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission.
The commission, however, approved a resolution during its monthly board meeting Thursday to delay any toll hike until at least Feb. 1, 2025. The commission members noted that they will consider possibly holding off on a toll increase in 2025 as well.
“It will be taken into consideration next year. It’s just a deferment,” board Vice Chairman Scott Halliday said.
In 2022, the commission approved a three-stage toll increase to generate more revenue to maintain its network of aging bridges. All of the bridges except for the modern Ocean City-Longport Bridge date to the 1930s or 1940s.
Tolls increased by 50 cents in 2022, 50 cents in 2023 and were supposed to go up another 50 cents in 2024. But the bridge toll for cars will remain at $2.50 now that the commission will hold off on an increase this year.
Chairwoman Carol Brand said the commission thought it was important to keep tolls the same at a time when inflation is putting additional financial pressure on families.
“It’s really a break,” Brand said of motorists not having to pay higher bridge tolls this year. “Also, the fact with inflation, the cost of gasoline and food and everything being so high, we thought it would be to our advantage not to raise it this year.”
Of further consideration in delaying the fare hike was the possible negative impact higher tolls may have had on Cape May County’s tourism-dependent beach communities, the commission members pointed out.
“We’re trying to promote tourism, not deter tourism,” board member Maryanne Murphy said.
Murphy noted that the bridge commission consulted with Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland about ways to increase visitation to the shore. They concluded that no toll increase would help to promote tourism – even though the commission would miss out on the higher revenue generated by a fare hike, she said.
“It would hurt more not to have the people,” Murphy explained of tourists at the shore.
Cape May County came roaring back from the COVID-19 pandemic for a record-high $7.4 billion in direct tourism spending in 2022. The county also attracted a record number of 11.3 million visitors in 2022. Tourism figures for 2023 will be reported later this year.
The five bridges operated by the commission hug the coast along the scenic Ocean Drive between Ocean City and Cape May and are a popular summer route for shore-bound tourists.
However, the amount of bridge traffic decreased overall in 2023 by 5.7 percent to 2,061,888 vehicles. Traffic was down across-the-board on all five bridges in 2023 compared to 2022’s numbers.
Commission members speculated that construction projects in 2023 on some of the bridges may have prompted motorists to seek alternate routes, which, in turn, drove down traffic volume.
They also wondered whether the 50-cent toll increase that went into effect in 2023 may have discouraged some motorists from using the bridges.
“I think the bottom line is there are many factors involved,” Halliday said of the traffic decline.
Although traffic was down, bridge revenue jumped in 2023 by nearly 20 percent overall to nearly $4.9 million, compared to about $4.1 million in 2022, thanks to the second stage of the toll increase.