Ken Garcia: A FasTrak that creates delays? Welcome to Bay Area transit

Bay Area residents are hardly surprised when they find themselves being taken for a ride by regional transportation agencies.

Whether it’s the promise that there won’t be another fare hike or that a major capital project — like, say, rebuilding the Bay Bridge — is just around the corner, we know that big talk can be emptier than a Hummer’s gas tank.

But rarely have officials insisted on forcing drivers to accept their way on the highway — until now. And this latest turn in local transportation adventures comes equipped with a novel idea to increase the pain of daily driving.

Next month, the Bay Area Toll Authority is expected to convert 10 more lanes on bridges throughout the region to FasTrak-only lanes, ostensibly to speed up the rush-hour commute. The only problem is that since the electronic toll collection system hasn’t proved all that popular, it means that those who pay with cash will see longer lines — and times — on their commute.

In other words, if you have a system that a lot of people don’t want, expand it. That ought to teach them.

Now, if you’re a daily commuter across one of our vaunted bridges, FasTrak probably makes a lot of sense. But that hardly describes vast numbers of drivers in the Bay Area who have found themselves in longer lines since FasTrak went into effect.

And there is no doubt as to what this plan means for those drivers, who for a variety of reasons, have determined that FasTrak doesn’t work for them — more idling time. In fact, lots of it.

According to a report on the plan to increase the use of FasTrak, those who resist buying their electronic pass could see delays increase up to 30 minutes at the Carquinez Bridge and similar waiting times on the Dumbarton Bridge. The slowdown on the Bay Bridge, which is wider and has significantly more lanes, would probably increase about five minutes, but, as with most things on Northern California’s busiest span, that seems glowingly optimistic. According to the transportation plan, a stepped-up marketing and public relations program would be launched before all the new lanes opened, and the number of outlets that would sell the electronic transponders would be increased. And presto, the number of FasTrak users would likely jump dramatically.

If it were only so easy to change driving habits and commuting patterns. Making it a tough sell and then selling it may prove to be counterintuitive. And so far, the threat to force people to stop their cash-carrying ways hasn’t been accompanied by discount offers — the one thing that has made trekking across the Golden Gate Bridge using FasTrak more popular.

It pays to remember that FasTrak has historically been plagued by problems, ever since the Legislature ordered Caltrans to install an electronic toll collection system 16 years ago. It took seven years for the state Department of Transportation to get the system online, but when it was first tried out FasTrak — and the agency that oversaw it — turned out to be duds.

Even more recent pushes to attract more customers have been fraught with delays, as people discovered last year when they had to wait hours in line to get their FasTrak passes at “specially designated’’ locations. FasTrak hasn’t always meant life in the fast lane.

So it’s hard to see how the Metropolitan Transportation Commission can decide that the best way to get people to use FasTrak is to threaten them with longer commutes if they don’t — especially here, where suspecting government motives and actions is considered an inalienable right. Critics in the Bay Area have been raising privacy concerns about data collected from FasTrak almost since its inception.

And transportation officials haven’t exactly won over Bay Area drivers, who have seen local bridge tolls rise far faster than expected. With the Golden Gate Bridge toll at $5 and the Bay Bridge fare hitting $4 in January, a lot of commuters might be feeling shortchanged, whether they get FasTrak or not. Promises of safety upgrades tend to lose their luster after 20 years or so.

Transportation officials have been threatening longer waits at cash-only lanes for years now to boost FasTrak sales and usage, and it hasn’t steered a lot more drivers into their corner. This time though, they seem to be telling us that they really, really mean it, and don’t saywe didn’t warn you when you’re shouting about the traffic in the confines of your Volvo station wagon.

After all, they’re really just there to make our lives better through electronic engineering. It’s actually very simple, once the kinks get worked out.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.Bay Area NewsLocalNews Columnists

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