Electronic Toll on Golden Gate Bridge Can Cost Tourists Hundreds

The authorities that run San Francisco's iconic Golden Gate Bridge announced that next year, they will remove the crossing's human toll takers and replace them with electronic sensors. The switch has been sold as a triumph for efficiency and traffic flow but is potential budget disaster for tourists who now risk stumbling into fines or having to pay more money for e-pass equipment.

Cities and states across the world have been moving to sensor-based tolling systems, from TxTag in Texas to E-ZPass in 14 states, without regard to the burden it places on tourists who either don't understand the system, have never heard of it, or can't reasonably access the tools for using them. The decision to remove all human toll-takers means visitors no longer have an alternative and must pay higher rates than everyone else.

The Golden Gate may be the most popular bridge on the planet for tourists, who cross by the hundreds daily to the Vista Point Overlook, where they take for postcard-perfect photographs views of the Bay Area. Unless they're from California and brought their own cars, they are unlikely to have personal access to its FasTrak subscription electronic passes, subjecting them to increased expenses.

Tourists often discover too late that these systems exist. "I remember seeing some signs about FasTrak when I was there but I have no idea what it was," wrote one victim on a message board after being served with a $110 fine. "I haven't been to California before and just followed directions on my GPS to keep left onto 91W...What should I do?... I live in Arizona and we don't have anything like that here and I am very much unfamiliar with the system."

FasTrak currently tacks another $25 onto existing toll fees each time a driver passes through its tolling system without its wireless equipment (which requires a $20 deposit and at least $25 in guaranteed funds before it will work). Do it twice, and the penalty rockets to $70. There are also expected to be extra fees levied by the third party that will manage the retroactive payment system.

Rental car companies almost always provide the option of loaning a pass, but they levy extra fees for the privilege, regardless of whether there's a cash-based alternative in the local toll booths. Avis, for example, adds another $2.50 per day, up to $10 a week, plus the actual cost of tolls.

Sunpass, the Florida version of the technology, can be purchased in advance for $5 plus tolls -- but only by residents of the United States and Canada. An estimated 3.5 million visitors to Orlando in 2011 will be from overseas. For now, they have an alternative, since Orlando currently maintains some cash-only toll booths.

The potential for budget disaster exists elsewhere on the planet, from Norway to Portugal. Melbourne, Australia's CityLink highway tolls, for example, are charged on the ride from the airport to the city, before most tourists have had a chance to acclimate to the system.

But if tourists haven't heard about its existence, they stumble into a pricing trap and are subject to a late payment fee in addition to the cost of the toll. According to the state roads agency, that fee adds AU$12 to $21.50 to the original cost of the toll.

They have three days after passing through the toll to navigate the local telephone system and contact the authorities to pay up, and if they don't understand the rules and miss that deadline, they can get hit with another $100 fine through their rental car agency.

"We suggest that you arrange for your travel on CityLink prior to travelling," the CityLink website offers unhelpfully, without mentioning how a first-time visitor is supposed to know. If they do happen to be aware of its existence ahead of time, visitors can pre-purchase passes online.

Customers in Australia complain about Hertz's charges of $20 a day for use of an e-pass scanner and Avis' fee of $30 to handle the "violation" of stumbling through a toll booth without paying with a scanner.

Travelers who don't rent cars, such as road-trippers, have no choice but to pay these tolls retroactively, usually by phone or by mail, and almost always incurring extra charges and losing vacation time for their pains.

At the Golden Gate Bridge, 34 people will lose their jobs as cash toll takers when the switch takes effect.

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