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.

One Response

  1. In Illinois, you can even be issued a speeding ticket if the time it takes you to reach another toll gate is too fast for the distance.

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