The Port Authority Carpool Plan allows commuters to benefit from what the agency calls “the largest toll discount” at its bridges and tunnels. Drivers must have an E-ZPass account and be registered for the plan in order to be eligible for the discount. There also have to be three or more people in the non-commercial vehicle, and drivers have to use a staffed “Cash-E-ZPass” toll lane and come to a complete stop so a toll collector can verify the number of occupants in the car.
If all of those conditions are met, the Port Authority Carpool customer pays just $3.50.
“By carpooling, you save the most money and reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” according to the E-ZPass section of the Port Authority’s website.
But a group of Fort Lee residents and fellow carpoolers from neighboring towns say the Port Authority is actually discouraging carpooling at the George Washington Bridge by ticketing drivers heading for the tollbooths for violations like illegally taking on passengers or stopping at a bus stop in what some of them describe as a “crackdown” and others see as a form of “harassment” on the part of Port Authority police. They also say enforcement is inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary, and they point out that nobody’s getting tickets for picking up passengers at the bus stop on the north side of Bridge Plaza heading away from the bridge.
The group says it’s no secret that it has been common practice for many years for drivers to pull up in the area of the bus stop just before the GWB tollbooths on the south side of Bridge Plaza, where there’s a line of people waiting for a lift across the bridge. The driver picks up the necessary amount of people to qualify as a “carpool” under the Port Authority’s guidelines—whether they know each other or not. The passenger or passengers jump into the car, allowing the driver to proceed over the bridge and save a few dollars under the carpool plan, and then drop his or her passengers off on the other side.
But their recent run-ins with the Port Authority police have led the group to demand that their tickets be dismissed and that the Port Authority stop targeting them and set aside a zone in the area of the tollbooths where they can legally take on passengers and take advantage of the carpool discount.
“The ultimate goal here is that they stop ticketing, and that we are allowed to continue doing what we have been doing,” said Leonor Javier of Fort Lee, who has received three tickets—two for the same incident—for such violations, and who even had a passenger she picked up forced to leave her car. “By interfering the way they are, they are intimidating drivers and also intimidating passengers. Because when they force a passenger out of your car, they are not only violating my rights, but also violating [the passengers’] rights. It’s never been an issue. Why is it an issue now?”
Fort Lee resident May Chin is one of those passengers—in fact, she met Javier while carpooling—and she has an idea why it’s an issue now.
“Just for revenue,” Chin said. “Because of the increased tolls.”
Chin, who says she can no longer afford to drive into the city, said, “We’re just doing what we’ve been doing all these years. To me, they’re just using lame excuses, citing security issues.”
Cesar Lafontaine of Fort Lee agreed, saying that while he hasn’t been ticketed yet, the stories he’s heard from other members of the group have made him more than a little concerned.
“I’m furious about this because for years—since 1996—we’ve been carpooling,” Lafontaine said. “And now they’ve increased the rate and are trying to get more money.”
Ira Greenfest of Teaneck was also ticketed for illegally taking on passengers in the same spot as Javier.
“The cop who gave me the ticket said, ‘Do you know these people?’ I didn’t know them by name, but they’re familiar to me,” Greenfest said. “The woman in the back seat said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know him.’ [The officer said], ‘What’s his name?’ She didn’t know my name. I had it in my head I better not speak. First he gave me the ticket, and then he let us through as a carpool.”
Fort Lee resident Hana Jain said she was issued two separate tickets for the same incident, the first for illegally stopping at a bus stop.
“[The Port Authority police officer] asked the passengers that I picked up to get out of the car,” Jain said. “I said, ‘I’m free; I’m an adult. I want to take whoever I want in my car as long as they’re adults.' … and then she gave me another ticket for inappropriate taking on of passengers.”
Fueled by frustration, given these experiences and others like them, Javier got the group together, and the carpoolers showed up at a recent Fort Lee Mayor and Council meeting to appeal to the borough’s governing body for help.
“We understand that this is the Port Authority police that are giving these tickets,” Jain said at the meeting. “But as a resident of Fort Lee, and with this economy and the increasing tolls, as you all know, if we can get a place where we can collect passengers or carpool without harassment from any policemen, [that’s what we want].”
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich later admitted, “When the issue was first presented to me, I had no idea what these people were talking about; I didn’t know there was carpooling. I didn’t know what they meant.”
But after speaking with the group and meeting with Javier separately, Sokolich says he understands the situation now and is trying to help.
“For people that go in their car everyday, it’s well worth their while to carpool because then they save themselves at least $5 or $6 per day,” Sokolich said. “It’s a very mobilized group, and I don’t blame them.”
The Mayor and Council proposed a nearby municipal parking lot as a possible location for carpoolers to meet up, but Javier and the others say that’s not a viable option because it would take them too far out of their way and cost them a lot of extra time, especially during peak traffic hours.
“We offered them other spots in Fort Lee, but apparently that doesn’t work because everybody gets dropped off at that bus stop, and that’s where everybody goes,” Sokolich said. “In other words, this program wouldn’t function unless it’s right there before the tollbooths.”
But Sokolich also said he realizes that the Port Authority is in a difficult position because picking up people you don’t know at a bus stop poses potential risks.
“It’s a safety issue picking up the people just before the bus stop, number one,” Sokolich said. “And number two, there’s an obvious safety issue as to one day there’s going to be a nut that’s going to be jumping into somebody’s car because that’s just the way of the world.”
Sokolich said he’s in the process of talking to the Port Authority in hopes of working out a solution that’s acceptable to everyone.
“Maybe cutting in the curb so the car can pull in so it won’t obstruct traffic,” he said. “And maybe start some registration process so you have to register to be a participant in the carpool.”
Fort Lee resident David Cohen, another frequent carpooler, who’s not part of the group Sokolich is working with, has had similar experiences. Cohen proposed “some sort of card to show that the person getting into the car is actually a good person.”
“That way I know that the other person is not a homicidal maniac, and that the person getting into your car is a person who is upstanding,” Cohen said, sharing his own story of getting into someone’s car as a passenger and having the driver, whom Cohen didn’t know, ask him his name and then introduce himself and the other passenger in the car.
“The Port Authority policeman was stopping cars, asking people, ‘What’s the name of the person next to you? What’s the name of the person in the backseat?’” Cohen said. “And sure enough, we were pulled over, and we repeated each other’s names, and we were allowed to pass with the carpool.”
Cohen added, “It’s a symbiotic relationship that everybody benefits from. I get a free ride over the bridge. He gets a $3 toll, and we all go green.”
Javier, who along with Jain and Greenfest, has a court date coming up and says she plans to plead “not guilty.”
“But there’s something even more sinister about this,” Greenfest said. “If I have a couple of passengers in my car, and I pull up to the bus stop to drop them off so they can take the bus to Manhattan, and I’m just turning off to Fort Lee, nobody in the world would ticket me.”