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Traffic on the Tollway Is Up; the Reason? ‘Y’ : Commute: The Foothill toll road’s use has doubled since its Nov. 1 debut. More drivers are zipping through with FasTrak system.

TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Steve Hohl has found commuter heaven.

He calls it the Foothill toll road.

Commuting 40 miles round-trip between his condo in Rancho Santa Margarita and his job at Land Concern, a Santa Ana landscaping firm, Hohl ought to be in tollway commercials.

Just listen: “Taking the Foothill toll road saves a bundle of time and stress off my trips every day.”

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The 23-year-old irrigation consultant is but one of thousands of motorists who in recent months have escaped the perils of navigating our expressway version of white-water rapids--the El Toro “Y,” where the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways meet.

So many motorists are making the switch that on the first Friday of this month the tollway was used by a record 9,009 vehicles, 50% more than the 5,723 users counted Nov. 1, the first day that the 50-cent tolls were collected.

Hohl said his situation probably explains why this is happening.

By using a zigzag route, which includes the 3.5-mile toll road segment that opened last October, Hohl said he’s saving 20 to 30 minutes each way, or almost an hour a day on his commute to and from work.

To reach his office, which is near where Dyer Road crosses the Costa Mesa Freeway, Hohl said he takes the Santa Margarita Parkway to the toll road, then travels north to Portola Parkway, enters the Santa Ana Freeway at Jeffrey Road, exits at Jamboree Road, and completes the journey on neighborhood streets. Sometimes he uses Barranca Parkway instead of the freeway to get across north Irvine.

The trip home is even faster, cutting his commute from an hour or more to only 25 minutes.

Hohl is not the only motorist who has discovered how to include the tollway in a jury-rigged trek.

Tollway officials say that apparently many others have experimented with customized routes, adopting the toll road by trial and error.

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Hohl agreed. “I tried several different routes before, and this turned out to be better than the others.”

Several other toll road users said they also customized their trips and weren’t even sure that it saves all that much travel time. But as Marjorie Besemer put it, “It makes the trip less complex. . . . At least you’re moving all the time.”

Besemer, who also lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, said she commutes 50 miles each way to her job as a technical service representative for a chemical company in South Gate, which is in Los Angeles County.

Tollway spokesman Mike Stockstill said officials are also pleased with the number of toll road customers who are using the FasTrak system to pay tolls electronically. FasTrak customers set up prepaid accounts and receive dashboard-mounted transponders, which communicate with electronic sensors at the toll plaza.

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As a motorist drives through the toll plaza, the transponder exchanges information with the tollway’s computers, reading from and writing information to an account card, similar to a credit card, which fits in the transponder like a floppy disk in a computer.

The system allows toll road users to bypass the toll booths altogether. It even notifies you when your prepaid account is low, or the transponder’s battery is getting too weak.

More than a fifth of all toll road customers are using the FasTrak system, which has helped shorten the wait for others who must come almost to a complete halt to deposit coins in toll collection baskets.

The typical FasTrak customer is, well, not typical. They’re usually well-off and in a hurry.

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A list of customers’ residential or business ZIP codes, released for the first time on Friday, shows that some come from as far away as Camarillo, West Los Angeles, Glendora, Fontana and San Diego.

The top area is ZIP code 92688 in Rancho Santa Margarita, which has 651 FasTrak customers. This is followed by ZIP code 92678 in Trabuco Canyon, which has 533 customers. In third place is ZIP code 92718 in Irvine, which has 508 FasTrak users.

ZIP code 92610 in Foothill Ranch, a new community adjacent to the toll road, accounts for 320 FasTrak customers. ZIP code 92682 in Mission Viejo ranks fifth, with 251.

And tollway officials even keep track of the cars that have been equipped with transponders.

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The Honda Accord leads the list with 133, followed by the Toyota Camry and the Ford Taurus, each with 84. The Ford Explorer, with 76, ranks fourth, and fifth place belongs to the Jeep Cherokee, with 63.

Next in order are the Nissan Maxima, Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Dodge Caravan and the Ford LTD.

Drivers who use the FasTrak system told The Times they’ve never had any problems with the high-tech, dashboard-mounted devices. Hohl, for example, said he was astounded--and pleased-- with a letter he received one day from the FasTrak office that said his transponder battery was weak during a recent trip through the toll plaza. “I took care of it instead of waiting until it didn’t work any more,” said Hohl, whose monthly toll bill is about $20.

But Besemer said she thinks it’s all too convenient for tollway officials and saves them from having to operate more toll booths.

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Said Besemer: “They should be paying us to use FasTrak.”

Zigzagging the El Toro “Y” Many south Orange County residents, such as irrigation consultant Steve Hohl, have customized their commutes to avoid the customary crush at the El Toro “Y”, where the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways meet. Hohl and many other motorists now take advantage of the Foothill tollway to circumvent the “Y”.


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