California

Do you drive to the Bay Area? A big change is coming to toll booths at the bridges

So long cash toll lanes, put away those dollar bills. The cashless economy is coming to Bay Area toll bridges.

The Bay’s seven state-run spans are getting rid of cash payments and steering motorists to the electronic FasTrak system, moves that toll officials say will loosen bottlenecks and speed traffic over Bay Area connectors.

“This is driven by convenience and the efficient movement of traffic on freeways,” Metropolitan Transportation Commission spokesman John Goodwin said Thursday. “Each (toll plaza) presents a bottleneck. For commute traffic during weekdays, 80 percent of motorists are already paying tolls with FasTrak.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) – the regional transportation planning agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area – on Wednesday approved a $4 million contract to begin converting the spans to all-electronic tolling.

The move could eventually be good news for Sacramento-area commuters who won’t have to slow into bumper-to-bumper toll plazas from freeway speeds. About 23,000 of the Sacramento region’s residents commuted to either the San Francisco or San Jose metro areas for work in 2017, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Thousands more head down to the Bay on weekends for fun.

The idea: no toll booths, no waiting. But don’t forget your FasTrak.

“For Sacramento-area motorists, the biggest change is that it is open-road tolling. No booths. No requirement to slow to 25 mph,” Goodwin said.

The first work to convert the tolls could happen as early as the end of summer 2022, officials said, though the next few months will bring those timeline targets into clearer focus. The commission has contracted with global tolling technology firm WSP USA, Inc., to oversee the project.

The system is already in place at the far left lane of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. The plan is to ultimately remove toll booths at Benicia and the Bay’s other state-run spans – the Antioch, Carquinez and Dumbarton bridges, along with the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – for an overhead system.

“It’s a process that will go bridge by bridge by bridge,” Goodwin said. But it didn’t begin overnight. The Golden Gate Bridge in 2013 was the first of the state-run Bay Area bridges to go cashless.

Toll officials decided to proceed with the project in December 2018; the commission was presented with several options in November 2018. There were a number of procedural steps along the way.

But Wednesday’s step, Goodwin said, was “a big one.”

The Bay plan to convert to cashless tolling comes amid a larger conversation – and civic fights in San Francisco in recent months – over cash bans with their attendant concerns over equal access to the city’s economy. In May, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors barred the city’s brick-and-mortar retailers from taking only credit card or mobile payments.

Motorists without FasTrak can still cross the bridges, however.

“We realize not everybody’s going to have FasTrak. Cameras will capture license plates and we’ll send invoices (to motorists) in the mail,” Goodwin said. “It’s really convenient for everybody whether they have FasTrak or not.”

The idea, he said, is to start with the Carquinez Bridge – more space for crews to work, Goodwin said. Also, and more importantly, he said, because the span’s booths have been a frequent target of robberies in recent years.

“It’s a good environment to learn the ropes of the transition,” Goodwin said. “But also we want to remove the danger to human beings. We’ve had more robberies at Carquinez than at any other bridge,” he continued, calling the numbers “wildly disproportionate” to the numbers of vehicles that go across the bridge.

One thing is clear: the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge will almost certainly be at the end of the seven-span list.

“Three different freeways flow into the bridge. Twenty lanes of traffic enter the bridge. That narrows to five. Everything about the bridge is tricky,” Goodwin said.

The transition to toll gate-free bridges will mean about 200 Caltrans toll takers will be reassigned, Goodwin said. Most of the boothminders are part-time employees.

But FasTrak will have to aggressively ramp up to meet the demand created by the new cashless toll spans, Goodwin said.

MTC officials have been watching traffic closely since the Golden Gate Bridge transitioned to cashless tolls in 2013.

With the eventual switch away from cash lanes, Goodwin said tolls officials anticipate a “crushload of new traffic for the FasTrak service center.”

“The scale of the pressure this will put on the customer service center will be enormous. So, the ramping up of the center for this new future is underway now,” Goodwin said. “It’s a really big bite that we have to chew.”

Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.
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