Authority considers eliminating cash option at toll plazas on Bay Area bridges to speed up traffic

Members of the Bay Area Toll Authority on Wednesday are considering replacing cash tolls with an all-electronic system, or possibly removing the plazas entirely, as a way to speed up traffic during heavy commute hours.

Specifically, the authority will consider two options: one that leaves toll plazas in place but allows drivers to pass through them without stopping, similar to the Golden Gate, and one that removes the toll plazas entirely and reduces the splintering of lanes leading to and from the plazas, the Mercury News first reported. There are seven bridges within the toll authority's jurisdiction.

The options could reduce delays by between three and seven minutes, a report submitted to the toll authority estimates.

People who dig around in their pockets for cash, are often big-time culprits in the long lines at the plazas on the bridges, toll authority spokesman Randy Rentschler told the Mercury News. As evidence, just check out the Bay Bridge on weekends, when cash-paying drivers sit in long lines even though there’s plenty of room in FasTrak lanes. 

Other upsides include less toll collector robberies, reduced vehicle emissions and fewer accidents, according to a report submitted to the toll authority. 

One big negative noted in the report, however, is that if the cash-taking toll plazas are eliminated, so are the employees who take the cash. 

There are 137 million toll-paying motorists who cross over Bay Area bridges every year and who find themselves in ever-lengthening commutes, according to the latest statistics. Eliminating cash tolls, or even removing the toll plaza itself, could save up to 7 minutes, analysts told the Mercury News — though commuters say the actual time they spend sitting at the toll plaza is a whole lot longer.

The Golden Gate Bridge switched to electronic tolling in 2013, with cameras that automatically snap photos of motorists’ license plates. Those with FasTrak accounts are debited, while those without accounts are sent a bill in the mail that they can pay online, over the phone or via USPS. 

More than 70 percent of drivers used FasTrak accounts to pay tolls in 2015, a figure the toll authority expects to rise to 80 percent by 2020, with or without all-electronic tolling.

People paying cash can also pay in person at a number of locations, which would be expanded if the authority switched to electronic tolling, toll authority officials say.

Depending on feedback from the toll authority Wednesday, toll officials told the Mercury News that a proposal to go with one of the two options would be presented early next year. And, it’d take another two or three years for the system to be put in place: the spring of 2021 for all-electronic tolling or the summer of 2022 for open-road tolling.