Golden Gate tolls may go digital

Ever had to scrounge frantically for loose change in your car seat or plead with your friend for an extra dollar to pay the toll at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza? How about waiting impatiently behind a car while a driver gets $14 handed back in change?

Those discouraging scenarios could soon be history, if a cash-saving proposal to transition the Golden Gate Bridge into an all-electronic tolling system is carried out.

Although bridge district officials are still working on facets of the system, typical electronic-tolling programs — which are currently employed on highways in Colorado, Florida and Texas — use video cameras to capture license plate numbers and also rely on vehicles to carry transponders, such as the FasTrak device.

Motorists have the option of pre-paying by purchasing a FasTrak card, or post-paying by receiving a bill for the toll at their home address from information gathered by their license plate, according to Neil Gray of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, a national nonprofit organization.

Kary Witt, the Golden Gate Bridge manager, said the district is examining the possibility of implementing that system, with the likelihood that FasTrak holders would receive the same kind of discount they enjoy now — their tolls are $1 cheaper than cash-paying motorists — as an incentive to buy the transponder.

Making the transition into all-electronic tolling shouldn’t be too difficult, considering that 72 percent of the bridge’s morning commuters are already using FasTrak, Witt said.

The move will help the district save about $1.8 million a year in staffing costs once it is fully implemented, according to a financial plan drafted by the district to help erase a five-year projected shortfall of $132 million.

A total of 35 toll workers will be let go as a result of the transition, although Witt said that many workers are expected to leave through attrition during the next few years.

“The hardest part about this is letting people go,” Witt said. “The technology is very exciting, but the human element is obviously difficult.”

Under the financial plan — which is a nonbinding document — all-electronic tolling would go into effect by the 2012 fiscal year. Both Witt and bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie said the project could take three to five years to implement. The motion would have to be approved by the bridge district’s board of directors.

Even though nearly all of the 80 tolling agencies in the country are examining the possibility of electronic tolling, there are still some concerns about the collection rates of the practice, according to Gray.

“Were not quite sure how often the video cameras can accurately capture a clear image of a plate,” Gray said. “And then there are uncertainties about sending the bill to the right address, and actually getting the person to pay the bill.”

Witt said the bridge district will review the best practices of electronic tolling systems currently in use, and decide which way to go from there.

“We introduced elements of electronic tolling in 2000, and it just seems like a logical endpoint to go all-electronic eventually,” Witt said. “In the next 10 years, there is going to be a time when a having a toll collector is going to be a novelty.”

 

Electronic tolls

The Golden Gate Bridge District is exploring making all of its toll booths automated. The idea is part of a larger package that is being pursued to help close a five-year projected shortfall of $132 million.

$5.7 million: Projected savings through 2015

$16.3 million: Projected savings through 2020

41 million: Number of annual vehicle crossings on the bridge

72: Percentage of morning commuters who have FasTrak transponders

$6: Current toll for cash-paying motorist

$5: Current toll for FasTrak customers

35: Job positions that would be affected
by the change

Source: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District

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