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Golden Gate Bridge's new cashless tollway promises convenience in exchange for privacy

Golden Gate Bridge's new cashless tollway promises convenience in exchange for privacy


Do you want your license plate photographed?

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golden gate bridge kevincole flickr
golden gate bridge kevincole flickr

San Francisco’s iconic and highly-trafficked Golden Gate Bridge transitioned to all-automated toll collection just after midnight today, eliminating the toll booth workers who collected the $6 fare in favor of a new system that relies entirely on transponders and cameras.

Cashless toll collection is common around the country, but most tollways still offer the option to pay with cash. The Golden Gate’s new 100 percent cashless system will speed up traffic and save $16 million over eight years, according to the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, which oversees the bridge. That money is sorely needed, as the bridge faces a $66 million budget deficit over the next five years.

"The tolling industry across the world is going cashless."

There are two ways to pay under the new protocol. Drivers can use the FasTrak system, which has been in use on the bridge since 2000, by opening an account and placing a transponder in their cars. The other option is tied to the vehicle’s license plate, which is captured by camera when they drive through the toll if a FasTrak tag is not detected (the new speed limit at the tollway is 25 mph, but the cameras can capture license plates at up to 100 mph). This option allows drivers to open a license plate account, allowing for automatic deductions, or simply wait for a bill to arrive at the address registered to the car.

"The tolling industry across the world is going cashless," said Mary Currie, the organization’s public affairs director. "We just are taking the lead here in California."

The Golden Gate Bridge joins the Florida turnpike, New York’s Henry Hudson Bridge, toll roads in North Texas, and other tollways around the country and around the world. News of the transition prompted sympathy for the displaced toll workers, who were regarded by locals as friendly fixtures on their daily commutes. Most of the 28 workers retired or were placed into new jobs, but nine have yet to find work.

But the privacy implications of installing cameras at tollways may be more worrisome than the displaced workforce. Cathy Gellis, a technology attorney who drives to work over the bridge every day, used to always pay in cash. She’s uncomfortable with the idea of placing a transponder in her car that could theoretically record her movements not only over the bridge, but everywhere.

The cameras can capture license plates at up to 100 mph

"The Fourth Amendment arguments of ‘you should only care if you have something to hide’ are hollow," she said. "You’re entitled to privacy, and in this day and age, it’s so easy to leave a track."

Since she has no viable alternative route to work, Gellis is hoping to maximize her privacy under the current system by paying for her FasTrak transponder in cash and covering the device in Mylar when she’s not driving through the tollway to block the signal.

To be fair, the Golden Gate Bridge authority has given more thought to privacy than some of the other toll operators, Gellis said. The bridge data will be retained for four and a half years. California has relatively stringent privacy protections, so the government may only access the Golden Gate Bridge records with a subpoena.

However, she said the system was designed without much public input. "If this is the wave of the future, I think we need to have a much longer conversation," she said. "I don’t know if we can ever have this automatic tolling without having privacy issues."

Cities are increasingly looking to cut costs by using technology to track the movements of its citizens. A company called CityScan has proposed a form of constant surveillance in order to monitor city violations for things like construction site permits and unauthorized billboards, and it’s not a huge leap to think that such image collection might be used to scan for crime.

"If this is the wave of the future, I think we need to have a much longer conversation."

But if automated tolling is a step on the path toward ubiquitous state surveillance, it’s a little comforting to know that even this basic attempt to watch citizens is still far from perfect. The North Texas Tolling Authority, which has operated cashless tolls since 2010, has had a massive problem with scofflaws dodging tolls, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, according to one report. The NTTA responded by publishing a list of violators.

Seventy percent of drivers already pay with FasTrak on the Golden Gate Bridge. But that still leaves six million drivers accustomed to paying in cash. The transition challenges will most likely come from rental cars or out-of-state drivers, whose addresses are harder to obtain. To combat these issues, the bridge authority has set up agreements with rental companies in advance, and will turn out-of-state violators over to collections agencies. It won’t, however, be publishing anyone’s name.

Alternatively, there’s always the Golden Gate bus.