Editorial: Why FasTrak is in the slow lane

In theory, it sounds great: Approach the toll plaza at any one of the eight Bay Area bridges and zip by the long lines of motorists who are fumbling in their pocketbooks or under their floormats for singles and spare change. Barely slow down as you drive through the toll booth, as special antennae debit your prepaid account via the transponder mounted on your windshield. Pat yourself on the back for shaving minutes off your commute and saving yourself the aggravation of one more long line.

Strangely, though, the FasTrak electronic toll collection system hasn’t quite caught on the way regional transit officials hoped it might when it was first introduced in the Bay Area in 2000 as a way to ease traffic congestion by reducing toll transaction time.

The system has gained momentum. By 2002 about 25 percent of drivers on all bridges except the Golden Gate were using FasTrak, and usage has increased by about

3 percent a year. Now, about 42 percent of drivers on all eight Bay Area bridges use the system.

That still trails far behind the usage of similar systems in other states, however, and transit officials are now putting the pedal to the metal in a bid to boost FasTrak usage to 70 percent.

The Bay Area Transit Authority is planning to add 10 new FasTrak-dedicated lanes on area bridges, including two on the Bay Bridge, and offering a series of award incentives, such as $100 in prepaid FasTrak tolls, to be announced on the radio during rush hour to daily drawing winners. An aggressive marketing campaign hits airwaves today to educate the public about the system and try to persuade people to sign on.

Six years after the debut of FasTrak, it’s clear many Bay Area drivers remain lukewarm. Some privacy advocates early on cited uncomfortable “Big Brother” parallels with the system. It’s more likely, though, that many drivers still see the system as providing marginal benefits. In the daily traffic jams approaching the Bay Bridge toll plaza, for example, FasTrak only provides an advantage to drivers in the last few hundred yards before the toll booths, as FasTrak lanes become delineated from cash-payment lanes.

Often the reduction in commute time amounts to five minutes or less, causing some drivers to figure that the newfangled system of transponders, prepaid accounts and bills sent to their homes isn’t quite worth the trouble.

Curiously, the planned addition of FasTrak-only lanes meant to ease congestion should further slow the commute for a majority of drivers, as the same number of cars would then be funnelled to fewer cash-only lanes.

Traffic congestion is unproductive, aggravating and time-wasting, and greater efforts are needed to reduce it. While FasTrak has made progress, it faces a long road until it achieves its potential.

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