We have wonderful restaurants here, and entertainment, but occasionally San Francisco calls to us. Perhaps it's the ocean. Or the Bay, and the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. We like to drive up to Benicia occasionally, too, or the wine country. But any of these short trips can turn into a headache if there is bridge backup. I don't recall having this problem when we lived in Albuquerque. It's a Bay Area phenomenon.
A few months ago we drove into the city with some friends on a beautiful late Sunday morning, leaving their Walnut Creek home at the same time their daughter did, who was returning to her apartment in the Marina district. She arrived more than an hour before us - because she had FasTrak. We had been stalled at the bridge approach forever waiting to pay our toll. I'd vaguely been noticing the FasTrak lanes for awhile, but that day the light bulb finally went on: Go FasTrak.
We looked up the information on the Internet and the next day my husband went to Safeway to sign up. You prepay the tolls and in return receive a transponder to put inside your car. Then when you drive through the FasTrak toll plaza, an overhead antenna reads your transponder and collects the toll. I was very excited to have my own transponder; I've wanted one ever since I saw "Star Trek." A toll fare display tells FasTrak users whether their account is OK or running low.
A camera is also there to record drivers who have not prepaid their tolls. Within 21 days, a violation notice is sent to the registered owner of the vehicle - so be careful who you loan your car to. The owner is asked for the toll amount plus a $25 penalty fee. You can ignore the notice but the second notice adds a $45 late fee to equal $70. Then it gets serious. The matter is referred to a collections agency and/or the DMV won't let you register your vehicle. But I'm sure all of us would pay the fee long before it gets to this point, right?
When our son lived in San Francisco for a few years after he graduated from college, we would go in about once a month to have dinner with him. After an enjoyable few hours, we would come home to go to bed and he would begin his real social life. The worst part - besides finding a place to park near his apartment - was the long wait at the bridge toll booth but FasTrak was still in the planning stages.
For FasTrak's first few years of operation, officials tried to make it equally convenient for drivers who still chose to hand money to an actual toll-taking person. But this is changing. FasTrak is converting cash lanes to FasTrak lanes, clustering them together for easier access, and extending the approaches to make it easier for FasTrakers to zoom past those who aren't taking advantage of the system. When the Bay Bridge closes over Labor Day weekend, a fifth FasTrak-only lane will be added, and the approach will be increased from 600 feet to 2,600 - that's almost a mile. Also better signage and pavement markings will help drivers get into the FasTrak lanes more easily. It's estimated that FasTrak lanes move vehicles through three times as quickly as cash lanes.
The Bay Area Toll Authority reports that 25 percent of drivers on the seven state-owned Bay Area bridges used FasTrak during the first quarter of 2002 after it began in 2001; now users are up to 48 percent but the goal is 70 percent. The Golden Gate Bridge's electronic tolls are run by another agency.
I've known people who have performed a random act of kindness by paying the toll for the car behind them when they pay their own toll. This may be a thing of the past. But there are other ways to be kind - and only a few ways to get into San Francisco.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.