Editorial: FasTrak at your supermarket

One thing Bay Area residents are known for is being ahead of the curve when it comes to adopting new and useful technology. So it has surprised many people that only 39 percent of Bay Area bridge commuters are using convenient FasTrak electronic toll payment, although the service was introduced seven years ago.

This driver usage is barely half of the 75 percent regularly tallied by East Coast toll bridges and toll highways. So the latest attempt to put FasTrak transponder boxes into more commute cars will make the little transmitters available at all sorts of Bay Area retailers.

At this stage, officials of the Bay Area Toll Authoritycan only say they have received strong interest from the retail chains they contacted. None have signed up yet and it is yet to be determined how much commission the authority will pay participating stores. The state is looking at bringing multiple vendors aboard, not putting all hopes onto a single retail chain, as has been done successfully in other states.

Transponders could be available at store counters within 90 days, providing an easy way to start using FasTrak for customers who have thus far resisted signing up via www.511

.org, fax, telephone or the Embarcadero customer service center.

But once the prepayments run out, drivers would have to register a credit card online or by phone to purchase more toll fees in advance. This is not actually maintaining the convenience of FasTrak for motorists who prefer in-store sales. At the very least, drivers should have the option of exchanging their spent-out transponders for new prepaid units, just as is done with disposable cameras.

Unfortunately, it is already known that measures such as marketing campaigns, retail outlet sales or even adding many more FasTrak-only lanes merely nibble around the edges of the true problem. The states with the most impressive levels of electronic toll payers — such as New York, New Jersey and Illinois — universally offer substantial permanent discounts on the level of 50 percent, $1, or an exemption from toll increases.

FasTrak usage rose 14 percent during periods when the Bay Area Toll Authority was offering temporary discounts, but now that percentage has stalled because the authority is wracked by conflicting priorities. Toll officials insist that the authority absolutely cannot afford to give major permanent FasTrak discounts because it is required to support the state-mandated $1 toll increase for funding the Bay Bridge seismic upgrade. However, there is a $1 FasTrak discount on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is owned by an independent district.

The surest way to increase commuter acceptance of electronically paid tolls — without the potential backlash of simply eliminating lanes for cash payment — would be to offer discounts. But in the absence of a Bay Bridge FasTrak discount, in-store transponder sales are a good idea that should put FasTrak on the right track to providing commuter convenience.

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