On the FasTrak


THURSDAY, JULY 21
A 3-door maroon Chevrolet pickup truck, with a rear seat passenger already in place awaits me. I get in the front seat next to the driver – a 30s something guy wearing a blue chambray work shirt, pressed jeans and nifty soft yellow-leather loafer style shoes. No radio, no talk. Both fog and traffic are heavy, but all lanes are moving along, our carpool lane taking the lead. The truck is fairly new, but the shocks must be pretty well worn. Whenever we hit even the smallest bump, we feel it and the large ring of keys in the ignition hits the dash board and clang, clang, clangs. Each time the driver grabs hold of the keys to silence them, until, after about the tenth time, we look at each other and laugh at this futile gesture.

Within a half hour we’re at the bay bridge toll plaza and as we zip through the carpool area, the driver slows, looks over at me and says, “Should I be over there?”, indicating the non-carpool lanes of paralyzed traffic. “No, no, you’re right where you should be. This is the carpool area”, I tell him, wondering why is he asking me this question. Then he asks, “But where do I pay?”. “You don’t have FasTrak?”, both I and the rider in the back ask in amazed unison.

“Uh, no. Last time I drove carpool it was free.” I explained that to use the carpool reduced toll lane you have to have a transponder (FasTrak) account. I also cautioned him that he would probably be receiving a citation in the mail, but that possibly he could get it waived if he opened a FasTrak account right away.

Later, at my computer, I checked to see what the penalty is for not paying toll. It’s $25 on top of the toll amount ($2.50); if you don’t pay up, they add $45 to the penalty.

As I was looking this up, I came across some interesting FasTrak facts. Fastrak is California’s Electronic Toll Collection system, but there are others throughout the U.S. EZPass on the East Coast was one of the first to be installed by New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Those three states alone account for two-thirds of the $3 BILLION toll industry. There’s the Fast Lane in Massachusetts, I-Pass in Illinois, i-Zoom in Indiana, SunPass in Florida, TollTag in Dallas, Pikepass in Oklahoma just to name a few, in addition to numerous electronic toll collection systems throughout the world.

Texas was the first state to use the system, in Dallas, in 1989 and California soon followed. Orange County was the first California location for electronic tolling in 1993, and that’s where the name FasTrak originated. Another first for California – we were the first state to require all toll bridges and roads to use the same electronic toll collection system.

Just a couple of years ago SF International Airport started accepting FasTrak in all its parking garages.

It seems we are rapidly becoming a FasTrak kind of world, where everyone is being monitored, tagged, tolled and surveilled, actually part of a nation-wide plan called the Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS. The main advantage is to regulate traffic and keep it moving smoothly and efficiently. But it’s become more than just a system to monitor traffic on our toll roads and bridges. I’m sure you’ve become aware of this invasive monitoring if you’ve ever looked up anything on Google and then seen your e-mail almost immediately flooded with advertising for items similar to what you originally Googled. And at the grocery store, Safeway, for example, if you use one of their membership cards (which allegedly gives you a substantial discount at checkout), everything you buy is coded under your account. Safeway (and who knows who else) is privvy to even your consumption habits; how much toilet paper you’re using and which brand of mustard you prefer. And using credit and debit cards for purchases does the same thing on an even larger scale.

All of this watching and recording is after all the philosophy of computerized technology, and we all eagerly go along with it. Hey, take a look at cell phones. Technology can be used to locate and track cell phones for any number of reasons, including origin – destination movements. They can find out where we go, and when we’re going there. Handy if you’re lost in the mountains and your battery hasn’t died, but also scary when you think about what happened to the freedom of the open road?

One wonders where all this information winds up. Our FasTrak people (the Bay Area Toll Authority, or BATA) claim to be very conscientious about security and privacy issues, and promise us that personal FasTrak data (birthdate, social security number, contact information) is all destroyed after a FasTrak account has been inactive for four years. Four years? Really? In the bay area alone, there are about 1 million FasTrak accounts, all being monitored every day, 24/7. That’s a lotta data and a lotta FasTraking. Driving a car may be taking a heavier toll than we realize.

The Lesson of the 405


Monday, July 18 Sunny pleasant Monday morning with a ride in the front seat of a Toyota Prius. Our driver is a 30s something lady wearing gray sweat pants and a brown sweater. I drop my $1.25 into the cup holder and off we go. We’re hardly 2 miles down the road when traffic starts drastically slowing down. Fearing the worst we crane our necks peering over the traffic to see what disaster lies ahead. All we see is a CHP officer standing by the side of the road with a small pick up truck and driver. One of those never to be solved freeway mysteries. Traffic picks up and we’re soon rolling along again at 60 mph. The driver tells me she’s somewhat new to casual carpooling. “I’ve been enjoying the yellow sticker privileges because of the Prius”, she says. “But no more”. Sounds like she’s been enjoying the luxury and privacy of being a single driver as well. But I point out that now she’s completely toll-free, with two paying passengers covering her toll. She agrees, and says it’s not bad at all. As we near San Pablo, once again there is slowing, and looking down the hill we see traffic completely stopped in all lanes. The sight of an empty freeway makes me think there’s been an horrendous accident, but once again there seems to be nothing going on and traffic mysteriously resumes.

Seeing the empty lanes brought to mind recent images of this past weekend’s closing of 10 miles of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. Perhaps you saw those pictures of that beautifully empty freeway, stretching car-free into the distance. As a former driver of the 405, I have never experienced even light traffic on that route, so it was an amazing sight, indeed. L.A. officials feared the worst with the closing, and a “Carmageddon” was predicted with snarled traffic and backups galore.

Instead, the much publicized week-end began on Saturday morning with nearly deserted streets – the major intersection of the Interstate 405 and Sunset Boulevard was empty except for a few police officers. And all they had to deal with was a group of curious trespassers with cameras, hoping to get a photo of the historic event. Officers at other major intersections simply stood at the ready, with nothing to do.

The weekend closing allowed the demolition of a portion of a bridge that crosses over the 405 freeway. Later in the year, the freeway will be closed once again while the other half of the bridge is torn down. The demolition is part of a plan that will extend L.A. Basin CARPOOL LANES, (yay!) connecting Orange County to the San Fernando Valley.

In a somewhat eccentric move, JetBlue offered flights from Burbank to Long Beach (a distance of 40 miles, about the amount of my carpool commute from Vallejo to San Francisco) for $4.00 during the freeway closure. They sold out.

Responding to the absurdity of flying on a jet for 40 miles, a group of six bicyclists, from a Los Angeles bike group called Wolfpack Hustle challenged Jet Blue, claiming they would arrive in Long Beach before the airline. And they did. Both the bikers and the fliers left from the same intersection in North Hollywood at 10:50 a.m. on Saturday morning. The six pedalers arrived in Long Beach an hour and 20 minutes BEFORE the passengers on Jet Blue. Although the flight itself lasted only 20 minutes, ground transportation and security gave the bikers the edge.

Another Angelino decided to take public transportation and made the trip in 2 hours, 2 minutes, proving, he said, “that there are transportation alternatives, even in L.A.”

The obvious lesson here is that there are ways to get around without a car and without depending on freeways. Although we are not all about to leap onto our bicycles each morning for a 40 mile commute to our jobs, the L.A. story, ridiculous as it may seem (405 t-shirts being sold along the freeway, drivers honking and cheering when the freeway re-opened, exotic snacks and a 405-decorated cake served on the Jet Blue flights) proves that we humans are an ingenious lot. If those committed 405 commuters were able to abandon their freeway for 53 hours, just think what the rest of us car junkies might accomplish if we started to seriously consider, and demand alternatives. Those of us in the casual carpool are off to a very good start.

Rakin’ in the Tolls


As we move into the second year of higher bridge tolls, we casual carpoolers can be thankful that we have to come up with only $2.50 to cross our bridges – $3.00 for the Golden Gate Bridge. Starting July 1 the big rigs, those giant 5-axle behemoths, started paying $18 to cross bay area bridges, an increase of $6.75. Next July 1, 2012 their tolls will rise again – to $25. On the Golden Gate Bridge, the new toll for big rigs is $22, up from $15 and will also be raised next year to $30.

Hybrid owners who’ve been enjoying car pool privileges and rates lost that perk on July 1 and must now join their commuting brothers and sisters in the non-carpool lanes. The program was sponsored by California assemblywoman Fran Pawley seven years ago, as a motivating nudge to buy cars that consumed less fuel. Does this mean that drivers are now on a roll, purchasing hybrids hand over fist? Probably not, but it sure does mean more toll revenue. However, take a look at the DC area – in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, all hybrids have carpool privileges and they double the number of hybrids in the nearby Maryland suburbs where there is no special privilege for owning a hybrid vehicle. Go figure.

More California tolls are rolling in from the newly instituted use of carpool lanes as express lanes. (In express lanes single drivers may use carpool lanes for a toll-fee which is charged on their FastTrack transponder). Two Northern California freeways added the express lane program last year and now Los Angeles County has joined the club. “It’s really not meant so much as a revenue-generating device as it is a congestion-management device,” said Martin Wachs, a transportation expert at the Santa Monica-based think tank Rand Corp. Well Martin, that’s good to know because, for one thing, it appears to actually negate the original and splendid use of carpooling as a ‘congestion-management device’ and now it looks like a great deal of money is being invested in the program just to keep cheaters out.

On the Bay Area’s first such toll/express lane, Interstate 680 between Pleasanton and Milpitas, there’s a whole lotta cheatin’ goin’ on and toll road operators are installing cameras along the route in an attempt to catch the solo non-paying drivers. “This is not going to be 100 percent automated enforcement”, said Frank Furger, executive director of the I-680 Express Lane Joint Powers Authority. “We are looking into the ability of technology to supplement and work hand-in-hand with the CHP officers in enforcement. We don’t have the technology to determine the number of occupants in a car.” This new system will also involve the expense of comparing photographs of cars taken at various points along the lane, sending toll-payment notices to the cheaters, and whatever other actions are necessary to collect fees and fines. The Bay Area is in the process of expanding the express lanes throughout the 800-mile network of carpool lanes.

Toll lane revenue actually seems to be diminishing down south in Orange County. Use of the lanes is down from last year – roughly 11 million trips were recorded on the 91 Express Lanes in 2010, compared with 11.5 million the year before. Those numbers were already down from pre-recession annual totals of between 13 and 14 million trips. Seems like much ado and a lot of short-term thinking. But it’s costing commuters a lot of money.

Soon to come with the first annual toll report – how much more are we paying, and (ahem) how is that money being spent?

Loyd Sigmon, Mr. Sig Alert


This last April I was enjoying an early spring morning casual carpool commute into San Francisco. We were off to a good start in a lovely Toyota Corolla, pleasant guy driving, traffic moving right along and all of a sudden ALL the lanes stopped. KCBS Radio reported that there was an accident near Hercules – a few miles ahead of us, with several major injuries, and that the 3 left lanes were blocked (that included us). “It’s a Sig Alert”, the announcer reported.

Sig Alert – a term I heard a lot when I was a commuter in Southern California, but not so much in the Bay Area. It’s defined as “any unplanned event that causes the closing of one lane of traffic for 30 minutes or more.” SigAlerts started in 1955, in L.A., thanks to a fellow named Loyd C. Sigmon. Loyd came from a radio background, station KMPC in L.A. and was in the army during WWII running non-combat radio communications. He used his radio talents to create a specialized radio receiver and reel-to-reel tape recorder that picked up LA police department traffic bulletins. When the receiver picked up a particular tone, it would record the subsequent bulletin. Before this device was developed, each of the many LA radio stations had to call the LAPD to get information on traffic accidents and conditions. As you can imagine, with the growing number of automobiles in LA, the frequency of traffic accidents and jams increased as well. Every time there was an accident, dozens of radio stations would call into the LAPD, tying up telephone lines while officers repeated the same information over and over again.

Sigmon’s receiver stopped that. Police Chief William Parker enthusiastically endorsed the device, and gave it the name ‘Sigalert’. Radio stations eagerly installed Sigmon’s device and were able to broadcast the information immediately.

Our Sigalert ended after about 30 minutes, the road cleared, and we were on our way again. Thanks, Loyd.

Summer Light


WEDNESDAY, JULY 6 Quick rides yesterday and today. It’s Summer Light and the hour-plus commute has become a 30 minute breeze. On Wednesday I rode in an Audi sedan with 2 other passengers, all of us passing our $1.25 to the driver. The driver reminded me of Chuck Norris – kind of a Marlboro Man style with a blue tooth securely clamped into his right ear and a crisp striped dress shirt. A lovely sunny summer morning, but the fog hangs out on the coast and will have its way with us. As we approach San Francisco and the bay, there it is – that ribbon of soft gray fog dramatically wrapped around the ocean side of the city, covering the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, while the city wakes up to the summer morning sun. When I return home, I treasure these few warm evenings that come our way in northern California, sitting in our garden, not needing a jacket or sweater. In the hour before sunset the California sun turns everything to gold, the trees alongside our house suddenly filled with flickering golden leaves.

THURSDAY I opened the back door of a Nissan sedan to a wonderful blasting Bach piano concerto on KDFC Radio. Great music all the way in to the city. Once we got settled the driver passed a bright yellow flyer to both of us riders, inviting us to attend a fund raiser for a candidate running for Vallejo City Council. How enterprising. Her car is well used with newspapers and coffee cup debris on the floor of the back seat. A great cobalt blue glass with a straw sits in her cupholder, a breakfast drink, I presume. Thicker fog this morning and cooler but a great morning nonetheless.

TODAY, FRIDAY Another quick commute in, alternating layers of cool air and warm sun. Crystal clear bay as we cross the ridge, ferries below leaving snail-like trails across the water as they approach the Ferry Building. My ride this morning is a red Honda sedan. A quick, uneventful Friday light ride with two silent ladies, immersed in headphones and traffic. The weekend is nearly upon us. Friday, summer, light.

Hot Times


TUESDAY, JULY 5 A short and pleasant wait today. A beautiful morning, about 65 degrees at 7 a.m. This side of the bay area (Vallejo, Benicia)had a HOT 4th of July – high ’90s at least, with a spectacular fireworks finale last night in Benicia. Now it’s reluctantly back to the job and commute today. I and another rider climb into the spacious back seat of a Hyundai SUV. The driver wanted to keep the front seat for her purse and asked us to sit in the back. The lady next to me starts talking about ‘gangster drivers’, clearly excited about something. “I always take a picture of the license plate of the car I’m riding in, when it’s with a man”, she said. It sounded like she’d attempted that this very morning, “but the driver got mad when he saw me taking the picture, and drove off!” “I like to take that precaution, just in case. And I always send the photo to my husband”, she added. The driver agreed. “You never know.” But she then added, “it works both ways, though. Some riders can be pretty strange.”

I didn’t comment, mostly because I didn’t want to get into that conversation. The photographer seemed a little over the top with her concerns, not like most of the commuters I ride with. If I don’t feel comfortable about getting in a car, I don’t. I wait for another ride.

But the conversation changed abruptly when we saw traffic stopping in all 4 lanes and a big plume of black smoke up ahead. Thanks to the driver’s husband, who she got on speaker phone, we learned that there had been a multiple car accident on the 80 freeway, near Pinole Valley Road, resulting in a car fire. We slowly inched along and finally passed the car which was totally destroyed. Only a gray metal shell remained, still smoking and being hosed by firemen. Hot! As is often the case, I never found out what actually happened, in spite of all my Googling. But it looked like all the people involved were alive and intact, at least the 6 people I saw, who were sitting on the hood of another car, grimly watching the car go up in smoke.

Still waiting to hear about the first year report on all those tolls we’ve been dutifully paying since last July 1. I did find one hot bit of some unsettling news on Phil Matier’s blog (this from May 4, 2011) – “Extra Bay Area Bridge Toll Money Lost in Bad Credit Deal”. It looks like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the agency that oversees Bay Area bridges, agreed to settle a contract with Ambac Financial Group for $120 million. The contract began in 2003 when the Commission started using Ambac to sell bonds to finance work on the Carquinez, Benicia and Bay Bridges at a much lower rate. Ambac sizzled and went bankrupt in 2008, and the contract said the Commission had to pay up. So there went about a year’s worth of the ‘extra’ tolls we’ve been paying. So glad we commuters could help out. Hot times indeed.