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FasTrak takes its toll on bridge jobs

By enelson
Wednesday, December 26th, 2007 at 3:53 pm in Bridges, driving, Funding, tolls.

Carquinez toll booths

My colleague Rachel Raskin-Zrihen at the Vallejo Times-Herald did a nice times-they-are-a-changin’ story on toll takers this weekend:

Since the advent of FasTrak, Bay Area bridge toll taking positions have been cut by 46 and another 20 will vanish in the next five years, (Caltrans spokesman Bob) Haus said. In 2002, there were 372 full-and part-time toll collectors, Haus said, and 326 today.

Like so many other jobs, theirs have been taken by new technology, namely FasTrak RFID technology that the Bay Area Toll Authority, a.k.a. the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, is trying to boost these days.

There are now about 725,000 FasTrak accounts, said Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Bay Area Toll Authority spokesman John Goodman.

No toll takers lost their jobs as a direct result of FasTrak, since most job reductions came through attrition and voluntary transfers, Haus said.

That reminded me of a conversation I had with an MTC official on the question that inevitably comes up when encouraging FasTrak use comes up: Why don’t you just give FasTrak users a discount?

He told me that raising tolls would require legislative approval, and that would be difficult to come up with, considering all of the toll increases we’ve had in recent years.

Especially helpful in Times-Herald story is this box:

Here’s how the $4 bridge toll is divided:

• $1 is the base toll.

• $1 was approved by voters in 1988 for special projects, including the new Benicia and Carquinez bridges.

• $1 was approved by voters in 2004 for a series of highway and transportation improvements.

• $1 is a seismic retrofit surcharge.

The next question is always, why not offer a cheaper toll to FasTrak users?

The answer is that BATA can’t spare enough toll revenue to cover the loss in revenue of any meaningful long-term discount.

 (NOTE: The Golden Gate, which is run by a separate authority, offers $1 discounts to FasTrak users)

Question No. 3, then, is what about the savings that more FasTrak tolling would net in terms of needing fewer toll takers, etc.?

The answer was (and I’m sorry to put it this way), even if you fired all the toll takers and did everything electronically, the savings from automation would only amount to a couple million dollars.

That would only be a fifth of what the least lucrative bridge, the Antioch Bridge, collects in a year. The Bay Bridge tolls add up to nearly $180 million in a year, so the savings would be insignificant, especially considering that you’d still have to collect cash from tourists.

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7 Responses to “FasTrak takes its toll on bridge jobs”

  1. Doug Faunt Says:

    “The answer was (and I’m sorry to put it this way), even if you fired all the toll takers and did everything electronically, the savings from automation would only amount to a couple million dollars.”

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, that I don’t really trust statements like this, without some objective evidence. I keep wondering if much of the difference isn’t going into the pockets of some company that taking a rakeoff from the FasTrak administration.

    But I’ve not seen any of that evidence, and certainly don’t have time to go looking myself. Isn’t it a shame we can’t trust our government agencies even for things like this?

  2. Bruce De Benedictis Says:

    I would like to know where the rest of the money for the bridge retrofit is coming from. If the total toll is $180 million annually, and the amount dedicated to the retrofit is much less than 100% of the amount, it is not enough to cover the interest on the $3+ billion or so that the retrofit is supposed to be costing. (5% interest on $3 billion is $150 million. State bonds pay about 5%.)

  3. timote Says:

    Huh?

    This fails the sniff test.

    $2,000,000 / 326 (the number of collectors according to the above quote) = $6,134.

    Uh, ya. I’m sure toll collectors make that annually. That’s off by an order of magnitude at least, at which point it is non-trivial in a $180M budget.

    So then maybe the argument is that not all those people are full-time. So, 7 bridges, 3 shifts, and what? 5 plazas average manned/bridge (that seems conservatively low). That’s 105 full-time toll-takes, which is still an unbelievably low $19,000 annual income.

  4. Robert Says:

    When I initially bought FastTrak, they advertised “for $26, get $30 worth of toll” when you buy at Safeway or Costco…I bought the unit and registered online.

    Imagine my surprise when I learned of a “threshold” amount of $15 and a “replenishment” amount of $25!! So in theory, unless I cancelled, I would never get my $15 back!! Well, I thought, it would speed my commute so it’s worth the price of admission. I used my Debit Card attached to my Checking acct as I didn’t want to use my credit cards to pay toll.

    For three months straight, it worked perfectly…I reached below the threshold and my replenishment amount was debited from my account. I was able to accurately calculate when the debots would take place so I would have enogh money in my acct., being I live paycheck to paycheck.

    One day, I noticed an $80 charge on my bank account (I check my bank account daily), and my research showed it to be a Fasttrak charge! I hurriedly checked my Fasttrak account online, and much to my shock, they upped my threshold to $40 (almost three times the amount from when I first joined) and also upped my replenishment to $80 (More then three times the amount from when I first joined)…so essentially, I was no longer out the initial $15, but it was now $40!!!

    I called and complained, and after enough diatribe back and forth, they agreed to change my threshold to $20, and my replenishment to $40…but also warned that the same thing will likely happen in three months as FastTrak reviews all accounts and adjusts them according to commuter habits.

    I have a few problems with this:

    1. Usually, in a situation where a customer pays on time without any issues, something like a threshold would be REDUCED not INCREASED!!!

    2. Isn’t FastTrak a privately ownned company, contracted by the state?? If so, where exactly are the funds they are withholding going? Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that if you have 1 million commuters using FastTrak, there is a pool of money equalling close to 40 million dollars…is that going to the bridge upkeep? Is it going to Cal Trans? Does this feel like a “tax” to anyone else?

    3. I received NO PRIOR NOTIFICATION OF AN INTENDED INCREASE!! You cannot tell me that in this day and age, an email notification cannot be sent to any users that will have their fees increased!!! Besides this fact, don’t we as consumers have the right to cancel before an increase takes effect?

    4. Of course, the only way to get my “threshold” amount back is to cancel and stop using FastTrak…and of course, you will recieve your funds WITHIN 30 DAYS OF RECEIPT OF THE FASTTRAK UNIT…

    5. One last thing…the Terms and Conditions has no limit to how much FastTrak can chharge and expect for both the replenishment and threshold amounts!!

    Am I the only one who thinks this is commuter blackmail? And again, WHERE IS THE MONEY GOING?

    I tried to get one of the local TV News stations to investigate, but got no response. I am not even sure which governing body to address this issue to.

    I would love to hear your opinion on the FastTrak “Tax” In this day and age, therre is no excuse for not letting consumers know in advance…furthermore, with the rising cost of fuel, every penny counts!!

    Thanks!

  5. david vartanoff Says:

    completely unethical. seemsto me CalTrans as bridge owner is the “responsible” gov’t entity.

  6. Robert Says:

    How is this for some numbers…this is based on 2001 Statistics…

    The total commuters crossing the following bridges in 1989/90:

    Antioch, Benicia/Martinez, Carquinez, Richmond/San Rafael, SF/Oakland, San Mateo/Hayward, Dumbarton

    Was 98,298,222 with 18,061,927 commuters using Commuter Tickets (System before FastTrak)

    (ref: ftp://ftp.abag.ca.gov/pub/mtc/planning/models/BAYCAST/RTP2001%20Assumptions%20Summary1%20(Nov2001).doc)

    ok…here is the simple math:

    Threshold amount Held/Threshold times Commuters using Commuter tix:

    $15 – $270,928,905

    $20 – $361,238,540

    $25 – $451,548,175

    $30 – $541,857,810

    $35 – $632,167,445

    $40 – $722,477,080

    So simply put…by the time all commuters get past 90 days, the FastTrak system will have $722 MILLION dollars to do…err…WHAT?

    This is assuming Commuters using the system have not increased and numbers match 1989/90 totals

  7. Al Bourdet Says:

    Robert Says:
    July 28th, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Robert’s experience is similar to mine. Without going into the gory details, my own Fastrake account was sitting on over $300 and $75 replenishment amounts even though I was not crossing the Bay Bridge more than 4 times a week.
    It just costs too much and they are taking advantage of the system to raise hugh capital for what?
    Further I have been unable to pin down their formula so so I can keep a low replenishment amount. No one at the the fastrak office would help me figure this out.

    Has anyone out there figured this formula out?

    Al

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