Although the majority of public roads in California are free, visitors driving in California should know that tolls are charged on some roads and bridges. Even though tolls can be avoided by taking alternative routes, paying tolls or using "FasTrak Only" lanes may make sense to avoid longer waits or detours. Drivers just need to be prepared with the following payment methods to avoid paying fines/fees on top of the regular toll charges: 

  • Carry United States currency to pay toll for the toll bridges that do not accept credit cards but do accept cash.   
  • Set up alternative payment options electronically if using the cashless, fully automated toll freeways, bridges and "FasTrak Only" express lanes listed below. 

As of 2016, the following toll roads are fully automated and do not accept cash payments:

  • San Francisco Bay Area: Golden Gate Bridge (south-bound)
  • Southern California: SR 73, 133, 241261 (Orange County), SR 125 (San Diego County - exact change or credit card OK), 
  • Select Freeways: Well-marked Express or High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes with "FasTrak" required signs and toll bridges that accept cash payments but may have "FasTrak Only" lanes with shorter lines.

In general, visitors with cash can use most California highways without worrying about fees or fines except for the specific automated toll roads listed above. Visitors who do not have a FasTrak account should avoid using the "FasTrak Only" lanes and use the "Cash", "Fastrak/Cash combo lanes" or unmarked lanes instead. (Pictures of Fastrak Only lane signage:  Example 1Example 2Example 3)

If you use the Fastrak only roads without first setting up an alternative payment option, the toll authority will typically send a bill (including fees) to the address on record for the vehicle license plate. While some visitors won't mind paying the fees for this convenient default "bill me later" option, visitors can avoid the fees by choosing one of the following options for paying electronic tolls:

  • Rent a FasTrak transponder from the rental car company (or check with the agent about their specific options and exact fees). Costs vary and can range from $3 to $10/day + tolls, whether you use it or not. So if you rent a car for a week, you could be charged $21-$70 in program fees (based on the example) on top of the cost of any tolls. This is convenient but usually the highest cost option. It is a particularly bad value for visitors who stay for many days but only pay tolls once or twice. So if you are renting a car and do not want this option, be sure to decline it to avoid being charged. But note, since the Rental Car is owned by the rental company, any viloations will be charged to your credit card, along with additional fees charged by the company. So you would have to deal with the rental car company to dispute any charges.
  • Set up a one-time electronic payment -- typically by entering the license plate # and paying with a credit card. This option is usually the most cost effective for visitors who can set up payment within the time limit (typically 48 hours).  This option is not available on all Toll Roads/Express Lanes/Bridges.
  • Purchase a FasTrak transponder online or from retail locations in SF Bay Area or Southern California. This may make sense for regular visitors that expect to pay more than $25 in tolls. Make sure you are buying the "Flex" version, they are the same price as the old standard version.

Use caution and carefully watch for signs and lane designations when travelling on freeways in metro California. If you happen to end up in the FasTrak Only toll lane by mistake -- don't panic. Your car will not explode if you drive in a FasTrak Only lane. You will not be arrested if you do not have FasTrak. Do not risk your life to avoid a few dollars in fees. Just drive normally if you're stuck in the wrong lane and cannot exit safely -- do not stop and try to back up!

The rest of the article provides more detail on toll roads in general, these automated toll roads, and recommended alternatives on how to pay the toll and avoid fees and fines.


Definitions:

FasTrak - This is the transponder that is used to pay automated tolls in California. There are currently two styles:

  • Standard version, basically just a white square shaped device. 
  • FasTrak "Flex" (Bay Area) or /Metro Express Lanes (Southern California) version, which looks the same as the standard except for a switch to indicate the number of people in the car.  (1, 2 or 3+)

Some rental car companies will offer to rent you the use of one, usually at a daily fee plus whatever tolls are charged while you are driving. (And for most rental car companies, they charge the highest toll rate at the time, regardless of any discount offered). If that is an option, you might be handed a box, or just find one in the car.  This box blocks the use of the FasTrak until opened (it blocks the Radio waves). So the minute you open the box, you agree to be charged the fee for its use.

Express Lanes - These  lanes are found on specially marked sections of a freeway, each with different posted rules in terms of who can use it. 

  • Regular Carpool/High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes: These are not toll lanes and are for use only by those with the minimum number of passengers during posted hours. Fines for violation can be very high (e.g. $400).
  • High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes: Lanes for use only by carpools meeting the minimum number of occupants OR single drivers with FasTrak who pay the electronic tolls. Some HOT express lanes require all vehicles (even carpools) to have FasTrak while others only require non-car pools to have FasTrak. Read signs carefully for specific rules to avoid fees or fines. 
  • Express Toll Lanes: Requires a valid transponder to pay electronic tolls regardless of the number of people in the vehicle. 

The San Francisco Bay Area 

Many visitors visit the Golden Gate Bridge -- which is an automated, cashless toll bridge. If you plan on driving southbound into San Francisco on the Golden Gate Bridge, you must pay tolls electronically via the following (see http://goldengate.org/tolls):

  • FasTrak ($6.50 or $4.50 for eligible carpools using the dedicated carpool lane)

  • One-time payment ($7.50) either online, over the phone (877-BAY-TOLL) or with cash in person at an Authorized Agent (Note: you can choose to pre-pay or pay within 48 hours - see http://goldengate.org/tolls/rentalveh...). For those who plan to cross the bridge multiple times and don't want to go online to pay each time, Fastrak offers a convenient "limited duration plate account". Just be sure to put an end date before you return your rental car to avoid paying for someone else's tolls.

  • Rental Car Program (cost varies with your rental car company)

  • Pay by Plate mailed invoice ($7.50) for those driving their own personal cars. Substantial late fees apply if toll is not paid on time.

There are 6 other bridges besides the Golden Gate Bridge:  Oakland Bay Bridge - 80, San Mateo Bridge - 92, Dumbarton Bridge  - 84, Carquinez Bridge - 80, Richmond San Rafael Bridge 580, and the Benecia-Martinez Bridge - 680. and three Express/HOV Lanes (I-580, I-680 and SR237)   All bridge toll plazas currently have cash lanes and "FasTrak" lanes except for the Golden Gate Bridge. All Toll Bridges only collect/charge in one direction, either east or west bound, to help save on labor costs. (You are basically paying for a round way trip when going through the Toll Collection area).

You can plan your journey by pre-calculating toll fees and figuring out what direction the tolls are charged by using this handy tool: http://www.batolls.info. It shows current prices as well as estimates future bridge prices for specific times and covers all San Francisco Bay Area bridges. 

On the SR237 Express Lanes in Santa Clara County (connects with the I-680 and I-880), You only need a FasTrak if a solo driver. But if you have any type of FasTrak including the new Flex version, you will need to place it in a Mylar Bag, or shut the Rental Car Box to avoid being charged.

http://www.vta.org/projects-and-progr...

On the I-580 and I-680 in Alameda County, pay attention to the lane markings for the HOT Express Lanes. All drivers need to have a FasTrak device on the I-580. Carpools are allowed into the lanes for free without one but on the I-580 you must have an FasTrak "Flex" transponder set to the correct amount of people in the car.  If you are a carpool and have a standard FasTrak Transponder on the I-680, either shut the box that the Rental Car Company places the FasTrak in, or a special Mylar bag to avoid the toll charge. The toll lane is clearly marked so a visitor should not unintentionally be driving in the Express lane.  For more information, see http://www.alamedactc.org/580express and http://www.680expresslane.org/Home.asp


Southern California

Los Angeles County has Metro Express Lanes. These lanes, currently on the I-10 and I-110 Freeway, require a FasTrak to enter, regardless of how many people are in the vehicle. VERY IMPORTANT: You ONLY need the FasTrak if you drive in the Metro Express Lanes (which are well-marked).  If you avoid the Metro Express lanes and drive in one of the many other lanes, NO FasTrak is needed!  Bottom line: you DO NOT need to have a FasTrak device in order to drive on the I-10 Freeway or I-110 Freeway.

If you DO decide to drive within one of the Metro Express Lanes, a toll will be charged unless you have a "Metro Express Lanes/FasTrak "Flex"  FasTrak with an adjustable switch installed on your vehicle.  The use of the lanes are free if there is a legitimate Carpool (multiple persons) in the vehicle as long as the new device is installed. Prior to entering the lanes, remember to set the switch on the device to coincide with the actual number of people in the car.  The rules are complex with regard to carpools.  On the portion of the I-110 that has FasTrak, 2 or more people in a vehicle travel toll-free if the transponder is set to the correct position.  On the I-10, however, 3 or more people in a car gets free access; 2 people in a vehicle will pay a toll during peak periods (5 a.m.- 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. - 7 p.m.). and will travel toll-free during the non-peak periods. Solo drivers will pay a toll whenever they enter the lanes, 7 days a week. Using a "standard" FasTrak device (no switch), you will be charged the Solo rate no matter how many people are in the vehicle.

https://www.metroexpresslanes.net/en/...

http://www.presstelegram.com/portlet/...

Again, remember, you do NOT need a FasTrak Device in order to drive on these 2 Freeways as long as you avoid the WELL-MARKED FasTrak lanes.

In Orange County, there are entire 'toll roads' which require a payment in order to use them: the 73, 133, 241 and 261 (some parts of the 73 and 133 freeways don't require a toll). Many visitors will find that they do not need to use these toll roads. But those that do, they can use FasTrak, ExpressAccount or pay after driving the toll road on the Internet for the license plate of the vehicle. More details can be found at the https://www.thetollroads.com/ . You have 5 days to pay the toll by one of many methods mentioned in the last link.  Failure to pay within 5 days will create a fine of $57.50 plus the cost of the toll. For someone renting a vehicle, the bill would be sent to the rental car company, who then pays the bill and charges you the cost, plus an additional processing fee. Note: Overseas visitors need to select "International" in the State field when paying online.

http://www.thetollroads.com/help/rentals

http://www.ocregister.com/articles/to...

The 91 Freeway also has Express Lanes which require a FasTrak (if you use those particular lanes) no matter how many folks are in the vehicle.  Carpools of Three or more (different than most Carpool requirements in California) qualify for a discount or free use, depending on the time of day.  In order to use these Express Lanes, follow the signs marked '3+ Carpool'. 

http://www.91expresslanes.com/

In San Diego County, there are a couple of areas, the Southbay Expressway (the Southern portion of the 125) is currently FasTrak, or Cash.  But in this case, the toll collection is unmanned, and you need to place exact change (bills and/or coin) in the machine, or you can use a Credit/Debit card.

http://www.sbxthe125.com/index.php

Interstate 15 from the central San Diego area to Inland Northern San Diego County (Escondido) has some Express Lanes which are free if you have at least 2 people in the car (No FasTrak needed). If you are driving by yourself, then you need a FasTrak transponder to drive in the Express Lanes, which are on the far left side of the freeway. If you are a carpool in a rental vehicle with a FasTrak Transponder installed, you'll want to avoid the toll charge by either shutting the box in which the FasTrak is located, or use a special Mylar bag to block the box's signal. Note, the Switchable FasTrak "Flex"/Metro Express Lanes version does not work for the carpool discount, you must place it in a Mylar Bag or shut the Rental Car box to not be charged.

http://fastrak.511sd.com/san-diego-to... 

BOTTOM LINE: if you see a sign that says "FasTrak only",  do not enter those lanes unless you have a transponder (and if you have a rental car, that the "box" is open).

Carpool Lanes

Many freeways in the state have Carpool Lanes (usable only if there are 2 or more people in the vehicle of any age -- sometimes 3, read the signs!), These lanes are also known as Diamond or HOV Lanes.  Many are Carpools 24 hours a day, while some are only enforced during peak times. (Signage next to the lanes will state if they are not enforced 24 hours a day). These lanes are almost always found on the left side of the freeway.  Also there are some special 'carpool only' entrance and exit ramps, either between two freeways (no need to merge into the regular lanes), or from city streets.  Also many "regular" entry ramps for Freeways have a special Diamond Lane, especially where they use metered entrance (you have to stop at a red light during busy periods before actually entering the freeway).

There are also two types of Carpool Lanes: one type has restricted access, where you can only enter at specific points (a white wide dash) and not when there is a double white (sometimes yellow, which is being phased out due to Federal regulations) and it is an expensive ticket if you get caught.  The other type of Carpool Lanes has 'continued access' lanes where the wide white dashes (called Elephant Tracks) allow entrance and exit to these Lanes at any time.  Some of these are not very clearly marked, so if you are a solo driver, driving in the far left lane, make sure that it is not a Diamond lane.

http://www.chp.ca.gov/html/hot_hov.html