April 12, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
Photo courtesy the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District
With hopes of closing a projected $132 million deficit and decreasing congestion, the operator of San Francisco's world-famous Golden Gate Bridge is considering moving toward a cashless toll system.
The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District on Friday, April 9, approved the study of a plan to have all tolls electronically collected by 2013. If approved, the bejeweled landmark would be the first California bridge with unmanned, electronic-only tolling booths, according to John Goodwin, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Bay Area (Calif.) Toll Authority.
"It's certainly a trend, there's no question about that," he said. "At this point, the challenges are technological rather than administrative."
The movement toward electronic tolling systems can be seen abroad and at home -- the E-470 outside Denver, facilities operated by the North Texas Tollway Authority in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and the 407 Express Toll Road near Toronto are some examples of roadways that have gone exclusively electronic, according to the proposed plan. Others considering the switch include the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
"Planning for and operating in an all-electronic environment is becoming standard practice in the toll collection industry," the staff report stated.
Facing a projected $132 million deficit over the next five years, Golden Gate Bridge officials are seeking a cost-benefit analysis for systems used across the nation and in Europe compared to manual collection costs, Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District spokeswoman Mary Currie said.
Toll collectors have been on the Golden Gate since it opened May 28, 1937, Currie said. The 35 workers currently make between $24 and $26 an hour, with medical, vacation and retirement benefits.
"Certainly from our auditing perspective, it's preferred to be all electronic," she said. "We want to look at what's already being done and be sure we're getting the right system for us -- in a cashless system, there's a lot more backroom work that needs to happen."
Those areas of study include the projected cost, schedule, toll collection hardware changes, signage, back-office processing upgrades and proposed toll policy changes, according to the approved study plan.
Already in place on the Golden Gate and most toll bridges in California's Bay Area, is the prepaid transponder FasTrak, an electronic toll collection system that allows drivers to prepay bridge tolls, eliminating the need to stop at the booth. If the plan is approved -- it's anticipated to be complete and back to the board in six months -- video license plate imaging would likely supplement FasTrak's services.
And FasTrak is already popular with regular Bay Area drivers, Currie said. Half of all drivers, and 70 percent of morning commuters, use the transponder, she said.
If the plan is approved, the Golden Gate would join the growing ranks of roads and bridges that have switched its toll collections to an all-electronic system.
One recent example of a toll road that's gone cashless is the E-470 just outside Denver, which also saw high rates of "express toll customers" like the FasTrak customers in California.
"It was not economically feasible to continue with the costs of operating toll booths 24/7," said E-470 Public Highway Authority spokeswoman Jo Snell. The new method was launched in two phases. The method was made available but not mandatory in January 2009 in order to get people comfortable with the license plate imaging toll. The second phase, in which paying cash was no longer an option, was implemented seven months later.
Communication issues remain the biggest challenge with the switch, Snell said. Drivers who receive toll bills via the mail (as is the case when one's license plate is captured by video), sometimes don't pay attention and are surprised when they receive violation notices, she said.
"I spent two years communicating the change to the public," she said. "But there's still a learning curve."