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FasTrak rat race

By enelson
Friday, July 6th, 2007 at 6:59 pm in Caltrans, driving, Freeways, Funding, tolls.


It almost seems anticlimactic, but on Monday another grand experiment in behavioral science will commence on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge.

The subjects of this experiment, we commuters, will be forced to wait in long lines to pay $4 cash tolls because the toll plaza will have two fewer cash lanes.

At the same time, the other rats in this maze — those with FasTrak electronic toll tags — will get to blow past the lanes of waiting cash payers.

We few, proud, transponder rats will hear reassuring little beeps coming from little plastic boxes on our windshields while reading “ETC OK” on the message board as we exit the toll booth. I think it stands for Ecumenical Tithe Conditioning.

The problem is what to do with the bad rats. I’m sure some of them will go through the maze several times and then scurry off to Costco or Safeway and buy their toll tags and become beep-worthy rats.

There are other possible complications, however.

Some of the rats may resent waiting in line and become agitated, especially if they know that if they get the toll tags, they could expect no more monetary reward than a temporary offer of $10 in free tolls (through Aug. 31). Luckily, they probably don’t know that $17.5 million in tolls were collected on the bridge in the fiscal year that ended last summer.

They may also cause the good rats to become agitated, when the lines they form to pay cash back up so far that the good rats with FasTrak are also forced to wait.

That isn’t as likely to happen as it once was, because the congestion scientists at the Bay Area Toll Authority and Caltrans, as part of this FasTrak conditioning experiment, have extended the FasTrak-only lane a few thousand feet.

The change is based on the theory that a certain low level of pain will change behavior.

To quote the BATA spokesman Randy Rentschler, egregiously out of context, “You kind of focus the pain in one small segment rather than stringing it out for a long period of time.”

If you pay cash, you will be the recipient of that pain.

Now I’m told by the good folks at BATA that the pain will be regulated by toll booths that can be switched back to cash for weekends and such, when out-of-towners can’t be expected to be properly conditioned.

If the experiment goes well (and even if it doesn’t), the lane shifts will take place on five of the six other bridges the authority controls. On the new Benicia Bridge, opening later this year, there will be “open road tolling,” which means FasTrak users can zoom through at the normal 80, er, 65 mph that they normally drive.

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7 Responses to “FasTrak rat race”

  1. MikeyP Says:

    I’m a FasTrak user who uses the San Mateo bridge every weekday, and I’m nervous about Monday. At least twice a week, I see someone completely ignore the “Carpool” and “FasTrak Only” signs as they approach the tollgate, only to realize at the last moment that they need to traverse two lanes to the pay gate. Inevitably, they come to a complete halt, as the toll lanes are mildy backed up. Their stopping, in turn, blocks the FasTrak lanes. Looks like they’ll have a full suite of possible FasTrak lanes to ignore and block on Monday.

    On a related note, last Friday I saw a woman gabbing with her passenger while doing 50 mph in the carpool lane approaching the SM bridge. Oblivious to the oncoming toll gates, she actually drove right in to the toll gate parking lot!

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Mikey, I’m anxious to hear about your experience today. Please let me know how it goes for you.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    One of the things I was remiss in pointing out was that cash-payers can make their lives easier if they keep right and use the mini-toll-plaza, which remains all-cash. I think a lot of people don’t like to go right, thinking it’s reserved for trucks. The suggestion isn’t original; I heard it from MTC spokesman John Goodwin.

  4. Ed Anderson Says:

    For those that regularly commute or drive across toll bridges, a FasTrak is probably a
    good idea such as a regular BART commuter or traveler buying a high value ticket to
    save time from purchasing a ticket daily. However, there are many of us that only cross
    these bridges occasionally and a FasTrak is not necessarily practical for us, such as the
    occasional BART commuter/traveler who may only get on BART 3 or 4 times a year to
    attend a public, cultural or entertainment events. The occasional BART traveler does not
    have fewer ticket machines or any contrived delay so why should there be an
    inconvenience for the occasional trip across a toll bridge? For households with two or
    more cars, this is especailly not practical.

  5. Doug Faunt Says:

    Err, it makes sense to me to have a transponder to use very occasionally. If I happen to be getting a ride across the bridge with friends, I carry it with me (it is a hassle if it fails, though). I’ve used mine 3 times in 11 months.

    If cash users were together enough to use the mini-toll-plaza, they’d mostly be together enough to use a Fastrak.

    I’d like to know if the Fastrak system brings in more money, both per car, and overall, for BATA than cash tolls, and if not, why not? Paying for toll collectors and the rest of the cash-handling infrastructure can’t be cheap.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Doug, I hear what you’re saying about planning out one’s trip through the toll plaza.

    As for the toll booth infrastructure, BATA tells me that even if all tolls were paid through FasTrak, it still wouldn’t pay for a significant discount for FasTrak users. I.e., they rake in so much money from tolls that the cash lanes cover their costs pretty well.

    The essential problem is getting more people to use FasTrak when a discount (BATA says) isn’t feasible) can’t be offered. Therefore, commuters get the carrot of more FasTrak lanes and the stick of fewer cash lanes.

  7. Doug Faunt Says:

    It’s pretty amazing to me that the overhead for FasTrak is the same as that for cash collection. Does some of that FasTrak overhead go to corporate profits somewhere?

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