I always carry cash. Always! Even when I go for a walk in my neighborhood. You never know when you’re going to come across a makeshift taco stand or a Girl Scout Cookie table, or a gun-toting alien demanding bus money because his spaceship crashed nearby and he’s desperate to get away from the scene. And you don’t want to test a sweaty anxious little green man.
My mother told me that I should always carry my ID and $20.00 (which is probably more like $100.00 in today’s money) so that I wouldn’t be arrested for vagrancy. So it’s ingrained in me to make sure I never leave the house without some sort of greenery.
The other day, I’m heading east on Interstate 80 toward the Carquinez toll bridge knowing I don’t have the $5.00. I did have it earlier in the day on the way to San Francisco and paid the toll to cross the Bay Bridge, but now…now that I’m trying to get home, I only have $2.00. I debated stopping in some derelict neighborhood ATM two exits before the bridge, but figured hey, I can’t be the first person to get to the bridge without cash. Surely they must have some sort of system in place for innocent people like me. Maybe a credit card will do the trick. Who would refuse a Gold Mastercard, am I right?
I mean, the lanes might be labeled CASH, but that’s as opposed to having FASTRAK, whatever the hell that is. So CASH really means NOT FASTRAK, as in, you have to stop and pay something rather than being the privileged special people who get to fly through a FASTRAK lane without stopping.
So I pull up to a toll booth and flash my Gold Mastercard and you know what he says? Well, you know what he said: No credit cards.
I go back and forth with him in disbelief that you actually have to have cash every time you enter a toll booth. Doesn’t he know that nobody carries cash any more?
“So what do I do?” I ask him, craning my neck, looking from side to side. “Can I just turn around and come back with cash?”
He tells me no, that I will get a bill in the mail. I think that’s a great alternative, until he tells me that I will also have to pay an additional $25.00 penalty. WHAT???? And if I don’t pay that in time, I will have to pay a $75.00 penalty.
All because I didn’t adhere to my mother’s advice from lo so many years ago.
And that’s it. He hands me an information card and I drive off wondering how they will figure out who I am and where I live to send this “bill”.
The card says, and I quote:
It is a violation of the California Vehicle Code for any person to enter upon a vehicular toll crossing without lawful money sufficient to pay the prescribed tolls, or a transponder for electronic toll payment.
In my humble opinion, the California Vehicle Code can suck it.
On the drive home, I’m thinking, I’m too old to get penalized for this crap. I’d aqcuire this FasTrak thing so I can fly with the best of them through the toll area, but I figure it’s a monthly fee and I don’t travel across the bridges that frequently. Once a month, maybe. And I didn’t want some big windshield-sized square in front of my face all the time blocking my view of turkeys and small children crossing the street.
I go home and forget about the whole thing until the bill arrives in the mail days later. And when I say “bill”, I apparently mean “Notice of Toll Evasion”.
Toll Evasion? Really? That sounds so … illegal. “Evasion” makes me think of scandalous white color crime and Leona Helmsley, for those of you old enough to get that reference.
But get this…I also see this sentence:
Is this your first violation? Sign up for a FasTrak account and we’ll waive the penalty fees.
Are you kidding me? An incentive to get a large white square in front of your face as you drive? And it comes bedecked with the FasTrak logo so you can advertise for them wherever you go, telling the world that they know you have a choice when it comes to bridge toll transponders and they appreciate that you’ve chosen FasTrak?
By the way, that’s a lie. Bridge toll payment companies are not a competitive industry. FasTrak is a monopoly in the Bay Area bridge toll arena and they can charge whatever the hell they want. (And it’s $5.00. And it’s cash. And you’d better have it on your person or you will be forever marked as a “Toll Evader”)
So it turns out you can use FasTrak like a prepaid rewards card, like Starbucks Rewards cards. But without the rewards. And no free bridge crossing on your birthday. And no 25% off breakfast days. And no free App Pick of the Week. Just a big ass white square blocking your view of small woodland creatures simply trying to live life without becoming another greasy spot on the highway rather than being able to hold up your phone for a quick bar code scan. But otherwise, it’s exactly the same.
So I fall for their monopolistic incentive and sign up for a FasTrak account, preload it with $25 and then nothing. It doesn’t say that my penalty fee has been waived. It doesn’t say if I still need to mail in a check for $5.00. It just took my money and ran.
The next day I called them and said, hey man, what do I do now? Do I still owe you money or what? They assured me everything was taken care of and I no longer owed them anything. And thank you for shopping at FasTrak, your FasTrak transponder will be arriving shortly.
Now I’m waiting for the UPS cargo plane guy to pull up today and ask me to sign for a package the size of a billboard.
UPDATE: It has arrived!