Highway Robbery New electronic toll collection system won’t fix traffic woes

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, May 10, 2000

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/2000/05/10/tollbooth.dtl

The long-awaited electronic toll collection system for the Golden Gate Bridge that is finally slated to be up and running by mid-summer demonstrates that technology used without intelligence can be worse than no technology at all.

Because it’s so late, ten to fifteen years by some measures, the system is already obsolete.

Unfortunately, it will also do very little to address the twin problems of congestion and pollution. Instead, the misnomered new system, called FasTrak, merely provides the illusion of a technical fix to a problem it in reality perpetuates.

The backers of the new toll collection system say it will speed up the number of daily bridge shakedowns to 7200 per hour, up from the current 6000.

That would be a welcome but slight improvement, if in fact it does happen.

But it’s no substitute for a more effective fix to the problem.

FasTrak involves putting little toll-paying transponders inside vehicles. It also requires participation in a convoluted new system that forces drivers to slow down each day to verify their prepaid toll balances on display screens located at each tollbooth.

Not only will commuters who use the FasTrak system still have to inch their way through the same old tollbooths, they’ll also be forced to wait behind other commuters who pay with cash. The only other option will be to slow down everyone else by doing last-minute lane change shuffles to catch the slipstream of other FasTrak users.

As a result, the contours of the bridge bottleneck will shift slightly, but the bottleneck will remain.

That’s because when you get right down to it, the new system leaves the odious innards of the old system fully in place: every single driver will still have to pay a toll, either manually or electronically, each and every time they use the bridge.

I can’t imagine a more idiotic way to collect whatever money is needed to support the bridge and related transit activities. Particularly when there are far better answers, both technical and non-technical.

FasTrak’s imminent debut does, however, make this a very good time to review the whole bridge toll collection process, including the question of why we pay bridge tolls in the first place.

We don’t use toll collectors, either manual or electronic, to support any other major form of public infrastructure.

Imagine, for example, if some politician proposed tollbooths to support our public schools, say, by making kids line up each day to pay three dollars?

The miscreant would be laughed out of town.

We don’t have public school tollbooths because it would be an irrational way to collect the funds needed to support public schools.

So why do we have tolls for bridges, another equally vital part of our public infrastructure?

The answer can be found in history and tradition.

Back when the auto was a relatively new creation it was mostly reserved for the well-to-do. Building new bridges usually wasn’t a populist cause. At the time, it probably made sense to require a pay-as-you go approach for the privileged few able to afford personal automobiles. Tolls were also, of course, the easiest way to get bridges built without huge, unpopular tax increases.

A lot has changed over the years.

Cars are now readily accessible, arguably essential to many. That’s particularly true for lower-income workers with children who can’t afford to live close enough to their jobs or to daycare to make public transportation a viable option.

Our economy at large has also grown dependent on our public bridges, not only to move workers to their jobs but also to move goods and service professionals to their destinations.

Close down our roads and bridges, or choke them with traffic, and our economy suffers, with the pain falling disproportionately on those with the least wealth.

Today, the very rich have helicopters; the rest of us need bridges, preferably ones that can be crossed with a minimum of delay.

Fortunately, several options exist for eliminating tollbooths entirely.

We could, for example, use a new, more modern vehicle registration system that would use inexpensive sensors on or near our license plates to detect the number of times a car passes over given bridges and then add those charges to our annual vehicle registration fees.

The number of users is so large, and the sums involved so huge, there would be dozens of wireless communication firms fighting it out to build such a system, which wouldn’t require tollbooths or slowing down.

The timing is right to turn this entire problem over to the burgeoning wireless communications industry, which could use the opportunity to make California’s bridges a model for the rest of the world.

Another alternative would be to increase gas taxes to make up for the revenue lost by eliminating tollbooths. New taxes are usually quite unpopular. But it’s possible a majority of us would vote for a small gas tax increase if it were coupled with the permanent removal of all gridlock-causing tollbooths.

The third and by far the best alternative is to simply stop taxing bridge crossings entirely.

Forcing people to pay again and again for bridges that have already been paid for is an example of government avarice at its worst. Tolls are a particularly thuggish form of official extortion, rooted as they are in the old bandito practice of robbing travelers on the road.

It doesn’t take any imagination at all to create a tollbooth, just muscle and a willingness to use it. While government is exceedingly good at employing such tactics, they shouldn’t be encouraged.

To be sure, toll proceeds are often used for purposes other than to maintain bridges, supporting some good ideas, such as the ferry system, along with more questionable items, such as the absurd number of well-paid bridge bureaucrats.

The only way we’ll ever figure out where all our toll money is actually going, and if those expenditures really do make sense, is to require taxpayer or at least legislative consent for each specific activity.

Of course, there are some who say tollbooths are good for the environment because they discourage auto use. Make the bridges easier to pass, some will say, and we’ll have more cars using them.


But we’ll also have considerably less pollution. According to one estimate out of car-choked Hong Kong, for example, idling cars cause roughly 100 times the pollution, per minute of vehicle use, than cars in motion.

It’s doubtful free bridges would, by themselves, cause a 100-fold increase in the number of bridge crossings.

What’s more, if stranding thousands of cars in unnecessary traffic jams each day really is such an environmentally friendly idea, why don’t we also close down a few lanes on highways 101 and 80? Just think of all the discouraged motorists we could create!

I’m certain that sometime in the next, say, five hundred years or so, we’ll figure out how to make the most efficient use of our roads and bridges.

I’m also certain that solution won’t involve stopping or slowing down every car every day at the exact same place.

The only question is how long it will take us to get to a more people-friendly, less polluting future. Unfortunately, the new FasTrak system won’t even put us on that road.

Just something to think about the next time you’re stuck in traffic, waiting to pay your three dollars.

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