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San Francisco Area Toll Bridges Switch to Electronic Payment

Seven toll bridges in Northern California’s Bay Area will soon phase out cash payments over the course of the next five years, replacing them completely with all-electronic means of payment.

Seven state-owned toll bridges in the San Francisco metro area will soon transition to an all-electronic payment system, phasing out cash transactions entirely.

The Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA) and Caltrans, which is the state's transportation agency, currently operate a mix of electronic toll collection and cash lanes on the seven bridges. The transition will be a $55 million project, one that will start soon by eliminating toll booths and other transit stations on the Carquinez Bridge, which is a twin span of Interstate 80 that crosses the Carquinez Strait, northeast of San Francisco. Other bridges will be transitioned from there, before the project eventually concludes with the Bay Bridge, a major roadway that connects Oakland and San Francisco. 

Moving forward, motorists using the bridges will pay entirely with the electronic FasTrak system. John Goodwin, the public information officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) which is one of the stakeholders on this project, said that motorists who use the bridges without FasTrak accounts will receive toll invoices sent to the address tied to their vehicle registration.

Some 80 percent of weekday commuters in the area currently use the FasTrak system, Goodwin said. Transitioning to an all electronic toll-collection system is expected to speed up bridge delay times by three to seven minutes in most cases, according to a BATA staff report.

“This has been a project that the commission has been very eager to carry forward. So I’m glad to see the next steps in doing that work,” said Amy R. Worth, chair of the BATA Oversight Committee, following the board’s unanimous approval of the decision Sept. 4, 2019, to award a $4 million, five-year contract to WSP USA Inc., a consultant to provide oversight and management of the transition.

San Francisco's Bay Area is known for its crawling traffic. A 2018 report by the MTC found that traffic-related delays had leveled off in 2017, after four consecutive years of “worsening commute times.” Still, the amount of time auto commuters spent in traffic congestion increased more than 80 percent since 2010, according to the report.

There are benefits for the transportation agencies as well, with the upgrades planned for bridge toll plazas expected to give traffic engineers a more effective set of technology tools for managing traffic. 

“Removing toll booths/plazas allows for greater flexibility to manage congestion by enabling smart metering lights, congestion pricing, and other congestion management projects,” reads the BATA staff report.

The switch to all-electronic payments will, however, eliminate a number of toll-collector jobs across the area. Caltrans employs some 200 toll-collectors, the majority of them part-time workers, Goodwin said.

“Caltrans is leading the way on transitioning these workers to other positions within the Caltrans organization,” he added. “And toll collectors will be given priority for openings elsewhere in the agency.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.

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