The Nassau County Bridge Authority should convert to cashless tolling at the only paid toll bridge on Long Island and add stricter controls on hiring, overtime and operations, Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman said in an audit released Thursday.
The comptroller’s office completed a three-year audit of the bridge authority after questions were raised about its largely cash operations and collection of $6.5 million annually in tolls on the Atlantic Beach bridge, which about 6 million vehicles cross each year between Atlantic Beach and Lawrence and Far Rockaway.
It is the only toll bridge to the barrier island, which also is accessible off the free Long Beach bridge, managed by Nassau County, or the Meadowbrook Parkway and Loop Parkway, managed by state transportation. About 99% of its revenues are generated from tolls, according to the audit.
The Atlantic Beach bridge was first built in the 1940s when the bridge authority was formed. Tolls paid off the original construction bonds in 1975, but the bridge has refinanced long-term debt through 2040.
"This is the only toll bridge around and Nassau County’s purview and it has raised a variety of questions," Schnirman said. "It has always been a cash toll booth as if trapped in a time machine, decades ago. This audit really became a long back-and-forth process and the bridge authority has taken steps to improve operations and offer better services for residents across Reynolds channel taking the bridge."
The bridge authority pays $3.4 million annually in salary and benefits to 32 full-time employees and 41 other part-time and seasonal workers.
The independent bureaucracy is overseen by five unpaid board members who have resisted cashless toll mechanisms like E-ZPass, but are now testing license plate readers that could let motorists pass without handing over their $2 fee at the toll booth.
The bridge authority spent $84,000 last year to add license plate reading cameras in two lanes to mail bills to drivers. Officials have argued converting to E-ZPass would be too costly, and they'd rather spend $300,000 on license plate readers.
Bridge authority chairman James Vilardi defended the agency’s finances and record in a written response to the audit, citing not raising tolls for 14 years, reducing staff and recording and accounting for all daily deposits. He questioned whether the audit was necessary, but said the authority was considering future policy changes.
Comptroller officials said some cashier slips did not match the day's deposits.
Vilardi could not be reached Thursday for comment.
"While the NCBA toll collection process is manually counted and paper intensive, the level of accuracy exceeds 99%. The small differences are considered immaterial," bridge officials responded in writing to the audit. "The authority regularly reviews the cost of E-ZPass and, to date, has decided that the cost far exceeds the benefit."
Other recommendations included limiting free toll passes for frequent commercial and municipal vehicles, limiting nearly $200,000 in overtime and adding policies on nepotism and patronage hiring.
In response to a maintenance supervisor overseeing his son, bridge authority officials told auditors, "The Nassau County Bridge Authority does not require a family tree with application of employment."