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TCA Wants Bigger Bite of Debit Card

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to cash in on an increasingly cashless society, county toll road authorities are discussing ways of transforming their windshield toll transponders into rolling debit cards, good for the purchase of grub, gas, prescription drugs and more.

Under the plan, the radio-signal gadgets that now smooth drivers’ entry to the county’s tollways could eventually be used at restaurants, gas stations, drugstores, dry cleaners and other drive-through businesses.

Directors of the Transportation Corridor Agencies will meet today to approve negotiations with the manufacturer of the toll road’s FasTrack transponders, SIRIT Technologies Inc. of Ontario, Canada. The two entities are interested in expanding the use of the transponders, which are attached to the windshield of cars.

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The payoff, the TCA says, is that it could charge a transaction fee for each purchase. “We realize that if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity soon, someone else will,” said TCA spokeswoman Lisa Telles. “The potential revenues here can be substantial.”

Roughly 175,000 toll road users have opened FasTrack accounts. Their TCA transponders, which operate by radio signal, allow them to drive through toll plazas without stopping, their cars scanned like items at supermarket check stands.

Sensors record the car’s passage and debit the expense of the toll to a special account, usually the motorist’s credit card.

The manufacturer of the transponders has provided about 800,000 transponders to toll agencies in the western United States, China and South America.

The TCA and the manufacturer of the transponders are experimenting with the use of transponders for purchasing cheeseburgers and other fast-food items at McDonald’s restaurants. So far, only three McDonald’s in Orange County offer the FasTrack service but the cashless, drive-through system may be expanded to another 50 locations. The TCA collects 20 cents for each purchase.

“McDonald’s has been seeing higher ticket sales as a result of the transponders,” said Michael Leahy, the TCA’s director of toll operations. “The average amount of money people spend with the FasTrack is more.”

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Leahy and others speculated in a report last month that the higher spending was done by mothers with children. “Instead of digging in the bottom of her purse to find just enough money for a couple Happy Meals and asking, ‘What’s left for me?’ Now she says, ‘Hey, I can get bigger fries.’ ”

Peter Buffa, TCA’s acting director of external affairs, will negotiate with SIRIT if the board approves the deal. On Wednesday, Buffa said an agreement might even involve devices that are not attached to cars but could be on key chains or in wallets. Such devices could be swiped across sensors inside businesses. “This is something that’s just going to be explosive in the next few years,” he said.

The plan to expand transponder services, though, comes at a time when the TCA and its primary contractor, Lockheed Martin, are defending themselves against complaints of erroneous billing and poor customer service.

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