Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ask not for whom the bridge tolls

Roiling the local traffic Q&A columns - by far the most interesting and useful part of the newspaper - has been the announcement that the Golden Gate Bridge, which is run by a different authority than the other seven Bay Area toll bridges (yes, seven - most people think there are only six), is about to eliminate human toll-takers altogether. It's already equipped for transponders, and for those who don't have them, you can pay online up to 30 days in advance or 2 days afterwards, or go to a machine (locations not yet announced), or wait for a bill to come in the mail to the registered owner of the license plate.

OK, locals can stick all that in their memory banks, along with other useful traffic advisories like when traffic is heavy on 101 so take 280 instead, but the question that's roiling the columns is: how are tourists supposed to know about this? You drive up to a bridge all unknowing, you prepare to pay the toll, but you can't pay it, and the detailed instructions online don't really work on a passing road sign. And if the car you're driving is a rental, the bill will go to the agency. No problem with their forwarding it to the renter, except that reports of experiences on toll-plaza-less tollways elsewhere reveal that the agencies charge a "processing fee" of $50 or $100. For a $2 toll. This strikes me as an abuse on the same order of outrageousness as airlines holding passengers hostage in parked airplanes for three hours, and deserves equivalent congressional action.

In the meanwhile, though, what can we do? This convenience of toll-less tollways is only making life more inconvenient for everyone except regular commuters. I'm afraid that the only solution is to add "check the rules on the local tollways and bridges" to the trip preparation process wherever you go. Ah, our brave new easy and simplified world. I was rather alerted to this problem several years ago when I visited Dallas, and the rental car agents warned me not to drive on the tollways because there were no toll plazas. I rather got the impression that there were, at least then, no cameras to snap license plates, and that it was illegal to drive on them without a transponder. Fortunately these tollways were geographically redundant, and there was always another way to get where I was going.

So now I'm planning a trip to Chicago, and will be driving the Tristate and the Indiana Toll Road. It's been close to a decade since my last visit, so much could be different. I unfondly remember the Tristate as the tollway that, instead of giving you a chit when you get on and expecting a one-shot payment by distance when you get off, as sensible tollways do, instead nickels and dimes you to death by making you stop every few miles and throw a little change into a hopper. I had learned to take lots of nickels and dimes, and quarters, with me on trips to Chicago and keeping them in the car's cup holder, because for years the toll at each stop was 40 cents, which for a minimum number of coins requires one of each. If you ran out of coins, there were staffed booths, but the wait was always long there, except for the exits just before the plazas, which charged a supplemental toll, and you'd better have the change because there was nobody to break a bill if you didn't.

So what do they have now? At least we have the web. If I didn't already know the system, I wouldn't be able to make head or tails out of this chart, but I'm guessing that the boldface lines are the everybody-stops plazas, and the others are the supplemental tolls at particular exits, except that a footnote reveals that those no longer take cash at all, and the "cash" fee is what non-transponder drivers have to pay later online. (Unlike at the Golden Gate Bridge, waiting for an envelope incurs an additional fine.) And even the plazas, which do take cash, apparently still take only coins, and require one heck of a lot more coins than they did a decade ago.

And the online payment page, I see, requires personal info about the plate owner. Obviously I'll have lots to talk with the rental car agency about. If they'll just rent me a transponder and not charge $50 for the privilege, that would be best.

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