For years, motorists in Orange County have fished in their pockets for spare change and yanked bills from their wallets as they've navigated the county's vast network of toll roads.
But those days are about to come to an end. The pay-to-drive highways are going cashless.
A metal-and-glass tollbooth on the San Joaquin Hills toll road, which winds along coastal Orange County, was symbolically plucked from the highway's toll plaza this week. The rest will be hauled away or boarded up in the weeks to come.
Orange County was a pioneer on the West Coast in constructing toll roads and still has the largest system in the state, but its toll plazas now seem to be from another era.
Come May, traffic on all Orange County toll roads will be routed through automated lanes, where customers can make payments with the existing FasTrak transponders or the new ExpressAccounts, which can be prepaid, be hooked to a credit card or generate monthly bills that are mailed to motorists.
The switch to the "non-stop" system will affect all 51 miles of toll roads in the county — the 73, 241, 261 and 133.
As part of the change, the Transportation Corridor Agencies are rolling out new ExpressAccounts unique to the Orange County toll roads, which will serve in lieu of dollars and coins. The system is designed to accommodate both everyday users and the occasional toll road driver.
Officials began installing new equipment on all roads in November that snaps images of license plates in order to keep track of the tolls when the FasTrak transponder is not used.
These users will incur costs that are about 20% higher than FasTrak users, just as cash customers did.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the first tollbooths were removed on the San Joaquin Hills toll road — one on each side of the Catalina View Mainline Toll Plaza in Irvine.
The booths, each measuring nearly 19 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 11 feet deep, were pulled from the ground with a 40-ton crane to make way for what will be a widened truck lane. (The FasTrak lanes here are currently too steep for trucks.)
Conceived by California Corridor Constructors in the early 1990s, the Route 73 toll plaza booths were intended to maintain motorists' safety while also respecting local aesthetics, said Lori Olin, spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which oversees the entire network of tollways.
"Before the toll roads were built in Orange County, toll plazas had typically been unpleasant places," she wrote in an email.
But the builders found a way around the standard unpleasantness, Olin explained, by reducing pollution effects, secluding the toll plaza visually from surrounding communities and designing unique, minimalist structures.
Michael Harper, 58, operations manager for cash operations for Central Parking System, which employs those who work in the booths, said he was there when the toll booths first opened in 1996. It was the first major plaza that the system built in the county. And on Thursday, he was there when the second booth was removed.
After the switch, Harper said, many of the 85 employees who work and manage the booths throughout Orange County are expected to move on to new jobs.
Meanwhile, the booths will remain in storage for the time being, along with two others hauled off from the Windy Ridge Toll Plaza on Route 241 earlier this month. The other cash stations on the road system will be barricaded when the changeover begins.