A speedier way to cross toll bridges in California debuts this weekend when the state opens the long-overdue new Benicia Bridge.

Two approach lanes to the new bridge, which opens in phases Saturday night and Sunday morning, are designed so motorists with FasTrak tags can zip through the toll plaza at 55 mph.

Known as open tolling, the nearly milelong lanes have no toll booths that drivers must squeeze past. The lanes are surrounded by wide shoulders to provide a safety buffer against slower-moving traffic in cash-only lanes

"This is going to be a really good thing for motorists, because there will be no waiting at the toll plaza," said Randy Rentchsler, spokesman for the Bay Area Toll Authority, which along with Caltrans manages the bridge. "It's going to be something new and something very easy to use."

This will be the first open tolling on any state toll bridge in California and the first on any road in Northern California, transit planners say.

The new bridge will have five northbound lanes and wide shoulders, compared with three lanes with no shoulder on the old bridge, built in 1962.

The old bridge will be converted to southbound traffic only.

Motorists will save several minutes during the northbound afternoon commute that has made the old bridge a traffic nightmare, said Keith Wayne, a Caltrans spokesman.

On Friday afternoons, it can take at least 45 minutes to creep over the bridge and the two miles of Interstate 680 leading up to the span connecting Contra Costa and Solano counties, longtime commuters say.

Vacationers leaving the Bay Area for skiing, boating and other recreational trips aggravate the problem.

"The bridge is a bear," said Dan Smith, a Benicia resident who works in Martinez. "I have spent 40 minutes getting to the bridge and another 20 minutes trying to get over it."

He said the FasTrak-only lane on the old bridge is of little use because it starts about 300 feet from toll plaza.

On the new bridge, the open tolling lanes for Fastrak users will start 4,300 feet from the toll plaza.

As motorists zip through the toll plaza, an electronic device high above the lanes will read the FasTrak tags on each car and deduct the toll from the driver's account.

Open-tolling lanes are widely used in some Southern and Midwestern states that have built new highway sections in the past 10 to 15 years, said Rod McMillan, a manager at the Bay Area Toll Authority.

Bay Area bridge operators plan to study the results of the first open-tolling lanes to determine whether they are appropriate for other bridges, McMillan said.

"It's a real challenge to retrofit an existing bridge with open-tolling lanes because you have to blend the high-speed traffic with the slower-moving traffic (in cash-only lanes)," he said.

The new Benicia Bridge is a good place to debut the new lanes because it has a long, fairly flat approach.

McMillan said new message signs on the bridge approach will give motorists advance notice that FasTrak customers should move to the left and cash-paying customers to the right.

"We expect there will be a little confusion at first," McMillan said, "but we expect people to catch on pretty quickly."

Reach Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or dcuff@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Bridge Highlights

  • OFFICIAL NAME: George Miller Bridge, named after U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, by a vote of the California Legislature.

  • CAPACITY: Five lanes of northbound traffic with emergency shoulders.

    Old span will be remain in place and be converted to southbound-only traffic. Old span will be fixed to have four lanes for cars and a new bicycle and pedestrian lane.

  • COST: $1.2 billion for bridge and related contracts, more than four times Caltrans' 1995 estimate of $266 million.

  • TOLL PLAZA: Will be located on the south side of bridge, unlike the old bridge, so any congestion at the toll plaza doesn't back up onto the bridge.

  • BRIDGE TYPE: Cast-in-place balanced cantilever segmental bridge.

  • LANE CONFIGURATION TO TOLL PLAZA: A car pool lane and two open-tolling lanes for fast traffic are to the far left. Other lanes that accept cash or FasTrak will be to the right.

  • SIZE: Main span is 1.4 miles long, or 1.6 miles including approaches.

    dedication ceremonies:

  • 9:30 a.m. Saturday -- Public dedication ceremony at Martinez Regional Shoreline Park, 7 N. Court St., in downtown Martinez.

  • 10 a.m. -- Only 300 vehicles issued special placards will be allowed to drive across the bridge with a police escort. All placards have been issued, and no more will be issued.

  • 11 a.m. -- Second dedication ceremony will be held at the Benicia Overlook, 2055 Park Road, Benicia. From Walnut Creek, take I-680 north. Exit at Bayshore Road. Turn left onto Bayshore Road and then left onto Park Road. Follow the signs to the event.