California bridge authority converts lanes to open-road tolling

| 1/25/2007

When a twin span of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge opens next year in the Bay Area of California, motorists and truckers will have the option of paying their tolls without slowing down - as long as they sign up for and pay money up-front into an account.

The Bay Area Toll Authority began tearing out toll booths last week on the existing lanes of the bridge.

A spokesman told Land Line the goal of open-road tolling is to reduce congestion.

"When we've got a staffed line where people are collecting cash, we get about 350 cars through in an hour," spokesman Rod McMillan said. "On an open-road tolling lane, you get about 1,800 cars through in an hour. It's really just to make our toll plazas more efficient."

The changeover from the existing system of conventional tolling lanes and FasTrack electronic lanes will cost $1 million.

About half of the four-wheeled vehicles using the Benicia-Martinez currently use FasTrak electronic toll tags. Those tags will work in the open-road lanes, McMillan said.

Motorists and truckers are issued electronic tags when they put a minimum of $20 into an account. Each time across the bridge - tolls are only collected on eastbound traffic on the Benicia-Martinez - the tag triggers a debit transaction in the account.

Even though there are no physical gates or staff required for open road tolling lanes or high-occupancy commuter lanes, McMillan cautions against people trying to get a free pass without an account and tag.

"The way we're set up right now for our open road tolling program, the first notice (of violation) is the toll plus $20," McMillan said. "If you don't pay on the first notice, the penalty escalates to $70."

During commute times, vehicles with more than one occupant can use a certain commuter lane on the bridge for free, he added. At all other times, there will be 10 conventional toll lanes and either two or three open-road tolling lanes on the Benicia-Martinez Bridge.

Tolls are calculated by the number of axles, ranging from $4 for two-axle vehicles to $13.50 for seven axles.

The Bay Area Toll Authority handles seven bridges in the Bay Area of Oakland and San Franciso.

The authority reported that 17 million vehicles per year cross the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. About 44 million cross the nearby Bay Bridge.

- By David Tanner, staff writer