Beginning Wednesday morning, testing of the Golden Gate Bridge's new all-electronic tolling system gets under way and will culminate in toll-takers vanishing from the span by the end of March.
There won't be any visible changes to the public as the testing starts. During this testing phase the new "pay-by-plate" toll system will be operational, along with traditional Fastrak and cash options. The public can sign up for pay-by-plate by visiting www.golden gate.org.
Pay-by-plate -- like Fastrak -- deducts payments from a driver's pre-paid account after the vehicle passes through the toll plaza. Once the toll-takers leave it will be the plate system and Fastrak that record tolls. Cash will no longer be an option at the toll plaza.
"We will be testing the pay-by-plate system internally," said Mary Currie, bridge district spokeswoman. "The public won't see much difference, but they can sign up for it if they would like."
The big change will come March 27, the tentative date when toll-takers are scheduled to be taken off the span.
The bridge district's Board of Directors has voted to eliminate the 32 toll-takers. The move, among other steps, will help bail the district out of a $66 million budget shortfall over the next five years.
The toll-takers have been part of the fabric of the bridge since it opened in 1937.
Eliminating toll-takers will save roughly $19 million over eight years in salaries and benefits. A toll-taker's base annual salary starts at $48,672 and tops out at $54,080.
It will cost $3.2 million, however, to get the all-electronic system up and running.
Roughly 20 million drivers pass through the toll plaza annually. Presently seven out of 10 people who cross the span have Fastrak; the highest percentage are morning and afternoon commuters.
Drivers can sign up for Fastrak at Walgreen drug stores, Costco, Safeway and other outlets, Currie said.
The Bay Area Toll Authority -- which oversees operation of the state-owned Bay Area bridges, including the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge -- will watch how the all-electronic toll system works on the Golden Gate Bridge.
"Now is the time for roll out at the Golden Gate Bridge," said John Goodwin, spokesman for the toll authority. "We will be watching very closely and looking for lessons that can be learned. But it will be years not months before it comes to the other bridges."