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Pay as You Go : Drivers Ante Up Change as Tollway Era Starts in County

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Several motorists fumbled for correct change. Some didn’t have it and simply drove through without paying. Others threw coins but missed their intended target. Traffic was heavy, and at one point there was a queue lasting nearly two minutes. A computer failed, an employee took ill.

And that’s the way it was Monday morning as the new age of toll roads dawned in California on Route 241, the Foothill tollway.

During the 6 to 9 a.m. peak traffic period, 1,733 vehicles passed through the toll plaza at Portola Parkway near Irvine, which handled all of the traffic for the northbound, or most traveled, direction, officials said. That was only 47.7% of Friday’s count of 3,633 vehicles during the same three hours at that location. But tollway officials were still happy with the results.

“It was a good day,” Mike Stockstill, spokesman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which oversees the tollway, said late Monday. “We were dealing with a new system, new to us and new to residents, and this was the shakedown day. There were only minor problems, and 90% of the people didn’t stay away because of the tolls. There’s a core of interest out there, and it’s going to continue.”

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It was busy around the exit toll booth at Portola.

“Some people are lousy shots,” toll operations consultant Amber Zentis said as she watched a driver miss the automatic coin machine.

But another driver executed a slam dunk and said, “I can do this--I’m from New Jersey,” where toll roads are old hat.

A well-suited man driving a black Porsche didn’t have correct change--50 cents--at the Portola exit.

“Just throw in what you have,” shouted Sam Donaldson, director of tollway operations. A dollar bill floated into the coin collection basket, which had to be retrieved by another tollway employee.

“We expected these kinds of things,” said Donaldson. “It’s a new road, a new system, and it will take awhile for people to get used to it.”

Monday was the first day for paying tolls on the initial 3.2-mile segment of the Foothill tollway from Portola Parkway in Lake Forest to Portola Parkway near Irvine. The road opened Oct. 16 but was toll-free during a two-week, get-acquainted period. Eventually, the toll road will extend 30 miles from the Irvine Lake area to Interstate 5 near San Clemente.

Few motorists used the tollway’s FasTrak system, which allows people with prepaid accounts and the proper electronic transmitters to breeze through toll plazas without having to stop. Motorists can insert a device resembling a credit card into a dashboard-mounted transponder that exchanges data by radio signal with the tollway’s computer system as a vehicle passes under an antenna mounted on an overhead lane sign.

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Overall, traffic during the morning rush hour arrived at the toll booths in spurts, forcing officials to alternate between manual and machine-automated coin collection in the lane marked for commuters traveling without FasTrak devices.

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Whenever manual operation was ordered, three or four tollway employees formed a line of toll-takers along the ramp, so that several people could pay at the same time.

“Not enough people have FasTrak yet, and that’s why we’re seeing the (traffic) bunching up,” said Dennis Bennett, program manager for Lockheed IMS, a division of the giant aerospace firm that installed and operates the toll collection system.

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Part of the problem was that the signals on the surface streets leading to tollway ramps were sending vehicles onto the new road in large groups. “We expected this, but not with as much impact as it has had today,” Bennett said.

As a flatbed truck ambled through the FasTrak lane without the necessary transmitter and failed to pay, a passenger held up his hands to show he had no money and wasn’t going to pay.

“We got him,” said Bennett, referring to the automatic system that snaps pictures of violators’ license plates for future identification and the mailing of warning letters and citations.

Moments later, a cement truck followed the same routine. Indeed, it appeared that several construction crews thought they were exempt from tolls.

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“They’ll get a polite letter telling them that it’s a toll road now,” Bennett said.

Most commuters interviewed after using the tollway Monday took the experience in stride.

Some, including Lake Forest insurance agent Stuart Koppleman, said, “We already pay enough for our roads with our taxes.”

But others echoed Sherry Blythe, a Mission Viejo legal secretary, who said, “It doesn’t bother me at all. . . . Actually, I guess, it was kind of nice to be part of history.”

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The traffic started bunching up at the Portola Parkway exit near Irvine shortly after 7 a.m. The longest line of cars lasted about one minute and 45 seconds, according to Bennett.

About 8 a.m., a toll collector became nauseated and left his post to rest. Eventually, tollway officials drove him to Irvine Medical Center for a checkup. He was later sent home, officials said.

There were some technical glitches as well, said Tony Frates, Lockheed’s vice president for transportation systems and services. The automatic coin machine on the tollway’s southbound on-ramp at Portola Parkway failed to work correctly, forcing collections by hand, and then the controller--a computer circuit board--handling that lane went out.

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“I don’t know what’s wrong with it,” Frates said.

Later, Lockheed’s Bennett said the controller would be replaced.

It was all a blur to Kathy Rossiter who was returning home to Lake Forest after taking her 10-year-old daughter to a private school in Irvine. “I didn’t notice anything wrong,” she said. “I just slowed down because I didn’t know where to put my two quarters.”

Interviewed later at an Arco station on Lake Forest Drive south of the tollway, Rossiter said she was pleased with her first-day experience.

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“I’m impressed that the road is even here, because I used to go through the El Toro Y, and that’s a mess,” she said.

She started laughing.

“I suppose it’s asking too much,” said Rossiter, “but can’t you keep this road a secret?”


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