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Golden Gate Bridge prepares for future without toll-takers

Published: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 5:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 7:03 a.m.

Imagine the Golden Gate Bridge without humans taking tolls at the iconic booths that stand sentry at the gateway to San Francisco.

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Human toll takers will become a thing of the past as the Golden Gate Bridge switches to all-electronic payment tolls this year.

JOHN BURGESS/Press Democrat

Forgot your toll money? No worries. Just drive on through and either pay at a kiosk down the road or wait for an invoice to arrive in the mail.

Such changes appear imminent as the Golden Gate becomes the first bridge in California and one of the few in the world to convert to all-electronic tolls.

Bridge officials express hope that with enough publicity, the conversion, which could take effect in March, won't cause major problems, such as motorists stopping on the span in a vain search for someone to give their toll money to.

"I don't think anyone will promise it will be glitch-free. It won't," said Brian Sobel, a Petaluma political consultant and one of three Sonoma County members on the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District. "But we want to keep errors to a bare minimum, and I think we're in a position to do that."

The majority of people who cross the Golden Gate pay their tolls using the FasTrak system and won't notice much of a change, except that everyone will be allowed to pass through the unmanned booths without stopping to pay a toll.

For everyone else, roughly 30 percent of bridge users, it's going to take some getting used to.

All-electronic tolls were approved for the Golden Gate in 2011 to ease congestion and close a projected $66 million, five-year shortfall in the bridge district's budget.

The system will cost $3.4 million to implement, including $520,000 to publicize the changes. It is projected to save the district $16.8 million over an eight-year period. The savings includes the loss of 28 full-time toll-takers.

Bridge officials delayed testing the new system until later this month as they continue to work out the kinks. Seattle's Highway 520 floating bridge currently relies on all-electronic tolls, as do a handful of other spans and roads across the nation.

Mary Currie, a spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge district, said the most visible change during the testing phase will be new signs informing motorists of the upcoming conversion.

Motorists who fail to pay a toll for whatever reason can expect to receive an invoice in the mail for just that amount. Unlike current policy, they will not be hit with an additional fine.

It's part of the transition to treating bridge users as "customers" and not as toll "evaders," said Sobel, who is chairman of the bridge's Electronic Toll Subcommittee.

"It may be a customer we haven't met yet," he said. "The signage will say, 'Keep moving, we'll find you.' "

For some, that could raise privacy concerns. Under the new system, cameras will photograph the front and rear license plates of every vehicle that crosses the bridge. The exception is FasTrak users, whose movements are monitored via battery-powered toll tags they carry with them.

"They don't need to know everywhere I go," said Natasha Pehrson, an infrequent Golden Gate traveler from Cazadero who would prefer to hand her money to a real person when she crosses the bridge.

California law allows the bridge to capture such information for toll-taking purposes and store it for up to four and a half years, Currie said. The data can be shared with law enforcement agencies that obtain a search warrant, she said.

About 20 million vehicles cross the bridge heading southbound annually. That includes 2.5 million trips in a vehicle registered to a Sonoma County address, according to a 2008 study.

Seventy percent of drivers who cross the bridge pay tolls via FasTrak, with that number hitting 86 percent during the morning commute, Currie said.

FasTrak users will continue to pay a discounted toll of $5. Most everyone else will continue to pay $6.

There is no fee to open a FasTrak account or for the toll tag if paying with a credit card. FasTrak holders must keep a minimum balance in their prepaid account, starting with $25 for credit card users and $50 for those paying with cash or check. The latter also have to pay a $20 refundable deposit for the tag.

With electronic tolling, people who'd rather pay as they go can register their license plates online, over the phone or in person with the bridge district. Every time they cross the bridge, their credit card or cash account will be charged $6 automatically.

Drivers who don't register a credit card account in advance will have 48 hours to pay the toll before an invoice is sent. Currie said invoices are sent to the address of the registered vehicle owner on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Motorists also can pay at kiosks that will be installed at the bridge, gas stations and at other locations along thoroughfares leading to and from the Golden Gate, although not in Sonoma County initially.

Bridge officials are encouraging people to pay without waiting for an invoice because it saves the district money. Mailing an invoice costs 67 cents per transaction, versus 39 cents paying with a license-plate account and 25 cents with FasTrak. Cash transactions involving human toll-takers cost 83 cents.

Tourists can make one-time toll payments up to 30 days prior to their visit, or use the other payment methods offered to more frequent bridge travelers.

Motorists who receive an invoice in the mail have 21 days to pay the toll without penalty. A $25 fine is tacked on if not paid 30 days after that. The matter is then referred to the DMV, which can place a hold on the vehicle's registration until the fine is taken care of.

Currie said bridge officials also are working with rental car companies to offer ways for their customers to pay tolls. She said some companies already offer FasTrak in their vehicles with an added fee.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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