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Jewish Journal

Today the Golden Gate Bridge Becomes a Little Colder

by Susan Esther Barnes

March 27, 2013 | 8:00 am

Photo of painting by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. See more at http://www.lkushner.com/.

You may have thought the almighty dollar would be accepted everywhere in the US, but starting today, the famous Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County will no longer accept cash. Rather, the bridge is switching over to what they call “all electronic tolling.”

For years, commuters in the San Francisco Bay Area have had the option of using FasTrak, an electronic device that one attaches to a car windshield and which deducts money from an account preloaded with toll funds. FasTrak is accepted at all the toll bridges in the area, and can even be used to pay for long term parking at San Francisco International Airport.

Up until today, everyone crossing any of these bridges could choose to either use FasTrak or pay cash. On the Golden Gate Bridge, that is no longer the case.

It seems bizarre, doesn’t it? After all, the Golden Gate Bridge is a world-famous tourist attraction. People come from all over to see it, and countless numbers of them drive across it on an annual basis.

I suppose those who use rental cars from the area may be given rentals with FasTrak installed so they can cross the bridge, but what about those who drive their own cars there from elsewhere? What about those people who don’t want – or can’t afford – to plunk down the minimum deposit of $25 for credit card users (or $50 for cash) for a FasTrak? Will they be arrested if they try to cross the bridge?

They will not. There are several other options, listed on the Golden Gate Bridge website.

Those who use the bridge infrequently can use a “one-time payment” account. They can set up the account online, and pay the bridge toll up to 30 days in advance, or within 48 hours after they cross. In theory, this is the option that’s supposed to work for tourists in their own vehicles, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts most of these folks will have no idea about this system before their visit.

Anyone who doesn’t have one of these types of accounts will be sent a bill in the mail. That’s right, there is a camera set up at each toll lane, to snap a photo of the license plate of anyone who crosses without the benefit of FasTrak.

Sounds great, but it seems obvious there will still be some loss in tolls collected. Some cars which don’t have license plates will cross for free. Blurry, unreadable photos of some plates will result in an inability to send a bill to some people who cross. Others simply won’t pay their bills. Although those with California license plates won’t be able to renew their annual registration until they pay off their delinquent bill, I don’t think out-of-state tourists will care much if California never gets its toll money. How much effort will California put into tracking down someone from another state for $6? Not much.

Plus, it’s hard for me to believe that the cost of taking and reading all those photos, processing all that paperwork, mailing all those bills and collecting the checks, etc. will cost less than the salaries and benefits of the toll takers.

Beyond the loss in revenue, I have to say I’m going to miss the toll takers themselves. A trip across any bridge in the Bay Area used to mean a smile at least, along with a wish to “have a nice day.” It may not sound like much, but it does add a bit of humanity to the drive.

I’m also old enough to remember when we used to have “pay the toll for the car behind you” days. Ultimately, everyone except the first car in the line (which pays twice) and the last car in the line (which goes across for free), everyone who participates pays the same toll. But the fact that some stranger in the car in front of you paid your toll, and the fact that you are paying the toll for some stranger behind you, created a feeling of goodwill for everyone involved. Including those now-unemployed toll takers.

With this new cash-free system, the option for such altruism is gone.

The Golden Gate Bridge has always been known for its wind and fog. Today, however, it just got a little bit colder.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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