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Confusion, speeders mark revamped Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza

Drivers at the all-electronic Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza on Wednesday, March 27, 2013.

CONNER JAY/ PD
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 7:21 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 2:49 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Motorists greeted the first morning in nearly 76 years without human toll collectors on the Golden Gate Bridge on Wednesday by embracing the change -- or being confused by it.

Many motorists zipped through the toll plaza -- often at speeds well above the posted speed limit of 25 mph -- which in turn erased congestion on the iconic span.

But other motorists still stopped at the vacant toll plaza, including one man in a silver Lexus who got out of his vehicle searching for someone to give money to.

"What a dodo," said a bridge worker, after she walked over to the toll lane where the man had stopped and told him to get going.

Nobody expected that the bridge's conversion to automatic tolls would go without a hitch. The Golden Gate Bridge is the first major span in the nation to make such a change, which is being closely watched around the Bay Area and the world as a possible example to follow.

Bridge officials were mostly pleased with the system's debut Wednesday.

"It's going really, really well," said Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

No major problems, such as crashes, were reported as of noon. That period covered the morning commute, in which an estimated 86 percent of motorists use FasTrak and thus already are accustomed to not stopping to pay their fares.

"These are the people we expected to be on their best behavior, and they are," said Kary Witt, a Windsor resident and manager of the bridge for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

By late morning, the confusion was more apparent.

One woman stopped at the toll plaza and rolled down her window to ask whether she was in the span's only dedicated carpool toll lane. She wasn't.

Another man who was traveling alone was. The toll lane is for carpools of three or more people.

Motorists who came to a full stop at the plaza were encouraged along by others honking their horns or by a loudspeaker employed by the bridge's security staff.

"Black Mercedes. Don't back up. Keep going. You will get a bill in the mail," was a typical exhortation.

Other motorists attempted to weave into other lanes at the last minute, apparently thinking that there are still some lanes reserved for FasTrak users. There aren't.

Electronic signs along Highway 101 stating that cash is no longer accepted on the bridge did not always help clarify the changes. Some motorists who pulled over after going through the toll plaza said they thought that meant they could still pay at the bridge using credit or debit cards.

Currie said the the district considered tweaking the signs, but elected not to because it could take months to get CalTrans approval to do so.

Numerous signs also have been installed at the toll plaza, including a 27-foot LED sign atop the structure, to encourage motorists to keep moving. The curved windows of the toll booths where humans collected fares have been darkened and arrows attached to point the way.

Some motorists caught on too well and blew through the toll plaza at speeds of 60 mph, according to the CHP.

The CHP beefed up its presence on the bridge as the morning wore on. But officers held off issuing tickets because people are still learning the new rules of the road, said Officer Andrew Barclay

Motorists are expected now to pay using FasTrak, license-plate accounts, direct billing or through kiosks and cashiers at locations along thoroughfares leading to the bridge.

Cameras mounted at the toll plaza photograph the license plates of every vehicle that passes through. Motorists who don't have FasTrak or an established license-plate account will get an invoice in the mail, which they must pay within 21 days to avoid penalties.

Currie said the Fastrak customer service center reportedmore than 4,000 calls Tuesday, the highests total in months. Most callers asked about activating new Fastrak accounts.

The holiday weekend is anticipated to be a major test of the new system as the bridge is likely to be a big draw for out-of-towners and others who will be unfamiliar with the changes.

Rental car customers are a major concern for officials, as a similar system unveiled in Florida caused mass confusion among that segment of bridge users.

Numerous motorists who went through the toll plaza Wednesday in rented vehicles pulled over at the bridge's administration building afterward with questions about how to pay their fares.

"We were like, we don't want to get a ticket," said Natalie Rich, a Cal-Poly student who rented a car along with some friends for spring break.

Bridge staff told Rich that she automatically opted-in to the rental car company's toll program when she went through the toll plaza. Such programs typically levy an additional service fee on top of the $6 toll.

Currie said the program is so new that rental car staff may not even be aware of it. She and other bridge officials advised motorists to ask that the service fee be waived.

Golden Gate officials canvassed car companies, hotels and travel services in the Bay Area prior to Wednesday's change. They also are working closely with third-party companies that administer toll programs for rental car agencies, Currie said.

She said people have to opt-out of the programs offered by rental car companies in order to avoid paying service fees. That requires customers to arrange payment on their own, which they can do in advance online or at a payment station.

Bridge officials threw the switch on the new automated system at midnight Tuesday.

Jim Eddie, president of the bridge district's board of directors, paid the final toll from behind the wheel of the 1937 Packard that was one of the first vehicles to cross the bridge when it opened. Also in the car was Brian Sobel, a Petaluma political consultant who also is a member of the board.

The new system is costing $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 new system resulted in the elimination of 28 full-time toll collector jobs.

More information about the new toll system can be found at www.goldengate.org/tolls/.

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