A toll worker taking cash from a driver. (Courtesy Bay Area Toll Authority)
Bay Curious listener Hoon Kim lives in Alameda and normally commutes by car across the Bay Bridge to his work in San Francisco. He, along with 73% of bridge crossers, uses FasTrak, but he’s familiar with the last-minute lane dance that happens when drivers without the automatic transponder try to get into the correct lane to pay cash.
Kim isn’t crossing the bridge as much these days, but he’s noticed something has changed.
“What happened to all the toll workers?” he wants to know.
Instead of lanes with workers diligently collecting bills, now there are signs telling drivers to drive through without stopping and that they will be billed later. That got Kim wondering even more.
“How are they billing people? How are they getting in contact with who is the owner of the car? Is that actually the right person? And are they actually losing a lot of money?”
What happened to the toll workers?
To answer Kim’s first question, Gov. Gavin Newsom made the decision to pull toll takers out of their booths when the pandemic hit in March 2020. He saw it as an unnecessary risk to their health. That decision sped up a plan that transit authorities have had in place for years to completely eliminate cash tolls and go to an all-electronic tolling system.
“Balancing the cash payer with the FasTrak is not an easy thing,” said Randy Rentschler, spokesperson for the Bay Area Toll Authority (BATA). “It seems simple, but it's not. And if we have too many cash lanes, it ties up the traffic really badly. If we have too few, and all the cash payers show up like they do on the weekends, and you have FasTrak, you can't get out of the cash paying mess.”
Even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, there will be no more toll takers on the bridge. It’s the end of an era.
Another listener, Eli Streicker-Hirt, wants to know, what will happen to those workers?
The toll takers work for Caltrans. A spokesperson there says the 250 employees who had been working at Bay Area bridges have not been laid off. Instead, the agency is working with them and their union to find them other jobs within the agency.
In the long run, going to cashless tolls will make everyone’s drive time faster, Rentschler said. He points to the Benicia-Martinez Bridge as an example of what all Bay Area bridges will eventually be like — no slowing down to go through a toll plaza, just continuing past a sensor at normal speed.
“Some folks were able to make the transition to all cashless easier than others,” Rentschler said. “Change is hard. I think the biggest change is for people who don't use the bridges very often.”
How are they billing people?
Cameras take a picture of every car’s license plate as it drives under a sensor at the toll plaza. If the car has a working FasTrak transponder, it will beep and deduct the toll. If for some reason the sensor doesn't read the transponder — maybe it's buried deep in the glove compartmnet — then the system will match the license plate to the FasTrak account. If there is no FasTrak associated with the plate, the agency sends a paper bill in the mail to the address listed on the car’s registration. Those bills will come monthly and must be paid, similar to a utility bill.
Rentschler said that because this new system went into effect abruptly, BATA did not charge late fees to people who did not pay their bills in 2020. But as of January 2021, BATA isn’t being so lenient. If toll bills aren’t paid in a timely manner, they're adding on late fees, like cities do for parking tickets. Rentschler understands that many people do not pay close attention to their mail, but said the law requires it.
Are they losing a lot of money?
In 2020, the Toll Authority was losing about $4 million per month, Rentschler said. That’s a lot of money. But, he called it a “no-interest loan to the public,” because he expects the toll authority will get it back when people go to register their cars and discover they owe fees.
“You can't register your vehicle in California until you pay your toll bill,” Rentschler said. “So we're not losing the money.”
The new system raises questions about fairness. Public advocates have successfully argued that court and probation fees act like a regressive tax. They can be a logistical stumbling block that trips a person up, and often compound. If a person doesn’t register their car because they can't pay their toll bill, for example, they might end up in even more trouble for driving an unregistered car.
"For those customers that have accumulated fees, we encourage them to contact us so we can work out an agreement," Rentschler said. "We have worked with many people on the level of the fees and on payment plans. Things happen and we are an understanding organization."
He said the Toll Authority thought long and hard about those issues, but ultimately decided that the all-electronic transition needed to happen, even if some people never pay. The lien on car registrations is the only way BATA can find people who don’t keep their address updated with the DMV.
We're probably going to lose a little bit more,” Rentschler said. “But everything in life is a trade off. You know, us keeping in operation two full toll collection systems, a cash system and a FasTrak system, was not cheap.”
BATA estimates that 8% of bridge crossers will end up in the violation or DMV registration hold category. One thing people often don’t know, Rentschler said, is that it’s possible to get a prepaid FasTrak transponder that doesn’t require a credit card. They sell them at BATA headquarters in downtown San Francisco and by mail with a check.
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