High-Tech Toll Road Cited as Preview of 'New Era' in State Transportation : Transit: Scanners on Riverside Freeway's express lanes will automatically deduct 25 cents to $2.50 from drivers' debit cards.


Motorists hoping to zip up the Riverside Freeway's new toll lanes will pay from 25 cents to $2.50 for a 10-mile trip on the world's first fully automated toll road complete with lasers, cameras and antennae.

Officials with the privately financed project said at a press conference Tuesday that commuters will pay one of five prices: 25 cents, 50 cents, $1, $1.50 or $2.50, depending on time of day and direction of travel between Riverside County and the Costa Mesa Freeway. "We're on the verge of a new era in California transportation," said Gerald Pfeffer, managing director of the California Private Transportation Co., which began building the $126-million project in 1993. "This is a modern, pay-as-you-go road."

Opening in late November, the express lanes are designed to relieve congestion along a stretch of California 91 that is traveled by about 250,000 motorists daily. Two lanes, located alongside the highway's median, will run in each direction. Pfeffer said the prices are geared to keep traffic flowing at all hours of the day.

"The prices are set to control congestion and maintain the speed at 55 m.p.h.," he said. Motorists traveling from Riverside County to the Costa Mesa Freeway at 9 p.m. will pay 25 cents. Those traveling the other way at 4 p.m. would pay $2.50.

To avoid confusion, prices and driving conditions will be posted on electronic signs at the entrances to the road. The average toll is estimated at $1.50. Car pools with three or more people can use a special lane and travel the roadway for free.

There will be no cash tolls on the road.

The tollbooth-free road will be open to cars equipped with a toll-tracking transponder that works like an electronic debit card. The 3 1/4-inch plastic device attaches to a vehicle's dashboard with Velcro.

As a car passes under the overhead toll device, antennae read the account information contained on the transponder's microchip and instantly deduct the toll for the trip.

Motorists must pay at least $40 worth of tolls in advance to get a transponder, which can be ordered by phone by calling 1-800-600-9191 or through the mail. The devices are also used on the Foothill Transportation Corridor in southern Orange County. Those who sign up for a transponder before Dec. 31 will receive a $25 toll credit.

Customers will receive a monthly statement. Anyone unsatisfied will get a refund, officials said. Three cameras hanging over the roadway will record the license plate number of vehicles without a transponder. The owners of those cars can receive fines of $100 to $300. Observers will be stationed nearby to make sure that no one cheats on the car-pool lane.

"People are inherently honest," said Pfeffer. "But just in case, we have a system to check on things." A system of 24 lasers, originally used in fighter jets, will track usage of the road at different times in the day. An on-road customer service patrol will be on hand to help motorists with flats and empty gas tanks. California Highway Patrol officers will be contracted to enforce the 55 m.p.h. speed limit and other traffic laws.

Officials in Germany are considering using similar technology for the Autobahn, Pfeffer said.

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