Toll authority takes gamble with fewer cash-only lanes

Like a majority of the 725,000 drivers who cross Bay Area bridges on weekdays, Phil Gontarski hasn’t signed up for FasTrak, and doesn’t see why he should if it doesn’t save time and money.</p>

He would be among the 66 percent of drivers forced into fewer cash-payment lanes under a proposal to add 10 FasTrak-only lanes to area bridges.

If too few drivers fail to sign on to FasTrak, however, waits at many Bay Area bridges could increase from five to 30 minutes, officials said. At the Bay Bridge, which currently has seven FasTrak-only lanes, two more would be added — leaving 11 lanes to cash-paying vehicles.

If the plan is successful officials expected waits at area bridges to drop to mere minutes, said John Goodwin, spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority.

The one exception would be the Bay Bridge, where commutes aren’t expected to get much shorter. “At peak commute hours the pipe is just too small, with 20 toll lanes funneling down to five [Bay Bridge] lanes,” Goodwin said.

An East Bay resident for 25 years, Gontarski, a locksmith who drives between the East Bay and San Francisco for work said he isn’t interested in FasTrak and won’t be forced into it unless he sees some direct advantage. It is that kind of attitude that toll officials hope to change with promises of financial incentives for new FasTrak members beginning Monday.

From awarding $100 in toll credits to one new member a day through the end of May, to doling out $1,000 in toll credits for the 500,000th customer in coming days, the Bay Area Toll Authority hopes the giveaways will boost weekday FasTrak use on area bridges from 42 percent to 70 percent over two years, according to a plan presented to BATA board members Wednesday.

Gontaski argued that the best way to get drivers on board was to establish a permanent or recurring toll discounts. “If you could save, say $100 a month, then it would be worth it,” Gontarski said.

“We recognize that the most effective incentive is a permanent toll discount,” spokesman John Goodwin said. “Unfortunately we can’t afford to offer a permanent discount because we need the money to pay off billions in seismic retrofit bonds.”

A $1 discount on the Golden Gate Bridge offered since September 2002 has helped boost FasTrak use to 69 percent from 62 percent, said Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

On top of incentives, and added FasTrak-only lanes, electronic directional signs and the grouping of the cash and FasTrak lanes to the right and left, respectively, are all part of the $26 million plan to modernize how bridge tolls are handled, BATA Director Rod McMillan told board members Wednesday.

The Bay Area Toll Authority votes on the plan June 14, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission does so on June 28.

ecarpenter@examiner.comartsbooksLocal

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