Golden Gate Bridge may remove toll plaza after 84 drivers crash into it

Drivers are crashing into the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza more than ever before.

That’s according to the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, which presented its plans for a new crash-free replacement for the toll plaza last Thursday.

The plan for a new toll plaza is simple enough: there won’t be one.

Instead, the district plans to build a “gantry” for collecting tolls which would be erected by 2018, and though they have not committed on a date, the Golden Gate District Board of Directors discussed the need to also tear down the current toll plaza.

The plaza’s proposed replacement, the gantry, is essentially a metal structure that would run above lanes of traffic from the bridge, equipped with cameras, radio equipment and other high-tech wizardry to aid in collecting tolls.

Most importantly, it would not have booths like the current toll plaza has.

No booths, the district hopes, would mean no crashes.

The current toll plaza “is past its useful life,” Jennifer Mennucci, the district’s budget director, said Thursday at a committee meeting of the bridge district.

Mennucci was referring to the technology inside the toll plaza installed in 2005, which is only able to read specific radio signals from FasTrak devices, which transmits toll data to radio readers at the plaza.

Though the new regulations are the major force behind the need to build the new gantry, Mennucci told the board, it’s also beneficial because people keep crashing into the toll plaza.

After the meeting, Golden Gate District Deputy General Manager Kary Witt told the San Francisco Examiner the crashes “dramatically increased” after two changes: All-electronic tolls and the new “zipper” movable lane barrier, the latter of which was introduced in early 2015.

“That’s just because people felt safer going across the bridge,” Witt said, and since they felt safer, they started driving “way too fast.”

Some drivers of wider vehicles that usually fit through the 10-feet wide toll lanes are now worse at threading that needle — and subsequently crash into the plaza.

“At a slow rate of speed, by a skilled person, that should be no problem,” Witt said.

The plaza is equipped with “crash buffers” called attenuators, he said, but they’re only designed to absorb one impact each and cost between $7,000 and $10,000 to replace.

Witt said the average speed of a motorist crossing the Golden Gate Bridge jumped from 35 miles per hour to about 50 after the movable barrier was installed in January 2015. That year there were 84 collisions into the toll plaza bad enough to warrant lane closures to repair, he said. That’s up from “fewer than 10” the previous year.

“Often the damage is severe enough that it takes out two lanes and requires us to go out right now and fix it,” Witt said, which can back up traffic for hours.

Notably, he said, those were collisions which required repair to the toll plaza, and does not count collisions which caused minor to no damage or otherwise went unreported.

There have been no reported injuries from those collisions, he said.

The rate of crashes has been somewhat mitigated by speed calming measures since the problem first arose, he added, but he did not provide specific numbers on that mitigation.

The technological reason for installing the gantry has a time limit, Mennucci said.

California is now determining new regulations for what radio frequencies “electronic toll collection” agencies in the state must use, according to CalTrans, which are expected to be determined by the end of 2018.

The regulations would help customers using multiple toll plazas, Mennucci said. For instance, someone with a FasTrak equivalent from Southern California cannot easily pay for a toll at the bridge district due to differing radio frequencies.

Vehicles crash into Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza. Photos courtesy of Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District
Vehicles crash into Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza. Photos courtesy of Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District

The new gantry may cost between $4 million to $5 million, Mennucci told reporters outside the meeting. That’s only an estimate, she said, as a project vendor has not yet been identified.

“Our system is old, anyway. It needs to be replaced, period,” she said.

During the meeting, directors raised myriad concerns.

Brian Sobel, the bridge district director from Sonoma, urged Mennucci to consider the design of the gantry as soon as possible, as the look will be “controversial.”

Denis Mulligan, general manager of the district, said current proposals would preserve the beloved art deco clock which is now on the toll plaza. Mennucci also said the gantry’s position was partially chosen to preserve iconic views of the bridge.

Dick Grosboll, the board’s president, said it was alarming there is no plan currently proposed to tear down the toll plaza in light of the various issues that were brought before the board.

“I imagine us getting a lot of criticism if we have a new toll plaza and the old one remains for three years,” he told district staff.

“People will be laughing at us,” he said.

To that criticism, bridge district engineer Ewa Bauer replied, “This is a great idea. There’s nothing stopping us from having two projects in parallel.”

No date has been set for the toll plaza to be removed.

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