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.