Cash-only drivers running out of room

Commuters heading west across the San Mateo Bridge on Monday were greeted with a breezier trip through the tolls if they paid with FasTrak or rode in a carpool — and longer lines if they paid cash.

The span between Hayward and San Mateo, used by 92,000 vehicles each day, is the first of the Bay Area Toll Authority’s seven bridges to receive expanded lanes for those using electronic transponders or sharing rides. During morning and evening commutes, the bridge’s one carpool lane and two FasTrak-only lanes have been expanded to two carpool lanes and three transponder-only lanes, reducing the number of lanes for cash-paying commuters from seven to five.

During nonpeak hours, the carpool/FasTrak lanes will become FasTrak-only lanes, making the total count for FasTrak-only lanes five.

“The bottom line is, we are telling Bay Area motorists, if you’re still using cash, be prepared for longer waits,” said John Goodwin, director of the authority.

Lane expansions are coming to other bridges this summer, starting with the Antioch Bridge and sweeping to the Bay, Dumbarton, Carquinez, Richmond/San Rafael and Benicia bridges, the latter of which will allow FasTrak users to avoid toll booths entirely, according to Goodwin. As cash-payers are squeezed, the authority hopes to boost FasTrak use from its current levels, near 48 percent, to 70 percent of all bridge toll payments.

“They’re making it extremely painful for the cash payers,” said Cliff Greenberg, who commutes daily from Castro Valley to his job at Nikon Precision Inc. in Belmont. “They chose the stick, not the carrot — I think the discount approach would motivate more people.”

On the Golden Gate Bridge, which operates under a different management, FasTrak users pay $4, rather than the $5 cash-payers must fork over. That has paid off, prompting 70 percent of morning commuters to use the devices, said Golden Gate Bridge District spokeswoman Mary Currie, who added that FasTrak has cured toll gridlock.

Caltrans, which owns the other Bay Area bridges, uses toll fares to pay off construction bonds and can’t afford to offer discounts, Goodwin said.

Even so, FasTrak use on the San Mateo Bridge and elsewhere has continued to rise by roughly 20 percent per year since the devices debuted in 2000 — a period in which bridge use has remained relatively flat, Goodwin said. Now, there are 650,000 FasTrak accounts and 1 million transponders in circulation.

bwinegarner@examiner.com


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