How to Stop Worrying and Love the Toll Roads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call it fear and loathing of the toll roads.

A recent survey by Orange County's toll road operators showed that many drivers avoid using the highway network because they find it exotic and ominous. Many fear they will be trapped at a booth without the correct change or borne off to unfamiliar areas, the survey found.

"The problem we're running into now is that people are making the decision not to drive on the toll roads because they're afraid they'll do it wrong," said Lisa Telles, spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies. "People do find it confusing."

With summer here and many motorists venturing onto the toll roads en route to vacation spots like San Diego and Palm Springs, TCA officials are launching a publicity drive to educate leery drivers--and generate revenue for the $1.7-billion highway system.

Part of the effort involves the use of 50-cent coupons that can be used at the system's three main toll plazas.

The coupons are being mailed to residents along the Eastern, Foothill and San Joaquin Hills toll roads.

Officials are also setting up display booths at several summer festivals to provide information on paying fares and navigating the roads.

For first-timers, it can be confusing.

Along some roads, tolls are collected at the end of the route.

Along others, the main toll plaza is at the halfway point.

Some toll stations have personnel who make change, but others are automated and require the exact toll.

"One of the first times I used the toll roads, I got stuck at an automatic toll booth without the correct change," admits Beth Krom, a TCA board member and Irvine council member.

"I thought that if I went through, giant nets would fall from the sky, sirens would blare and lights would go off. I actually got out of my car and went to the car behind me to make change."

Because toll violators can now be fined $25, it pays for would-be tollway drivers to learn the ins and outs of the system--the most extensive toll roads in the state.

A primer:

The county's toll roads should not be confused with the 91 Express Lanes--a private toll road on the median of the Riverside Freeway.

Motorists cannot pay cash to use these lanes; they must set up a special account. Drivers who use the lanes without an account can be fined.

Because free carpool lanes funnel into the Express Lanes along one portion of the Riverside Freeway, motorists should watch for signs that tell them where the toll lanes begin.

Motorists using the San Joaquin Hills tollway (California 73) and Foothill/Eastern tollways (133, 241 and 261) may pay cash or set up a similar account that automatically deducts the toll using a radio transponder affixed to the customer's windshield.

These so-called FasTrak devices allow motorists to drive through specially marked lanes without having to stop.

There are separate lanes for cash and FasTrak customers, and drivers who don't have a transponder and drive through the FasTrak lanes can be fined.

Officials said the transponders are best suited to motorists who use the tollways three to five times a week. Transponders require a $30 deposit and are assessed a $1 service fee each month.

TCA officials say motorists can save roughly 20 minutes on any trip by taking the toll roads, although the routes are experiencing congestion, particularly during rush hour along the Eastern tollway near the Riverside Freeway.

The time savings may be less significant on weekends.

Toll amounts depend on where the motorist enters or exits. The maximum toll on the network is $4.50.

Tolls are collected at staffed and automatic booths. The network has three, 24-hour manned collection plazas on the San Joaquin Hills and Foothill/Eastern toll roads.

The TCA gives the following recommendations for dealing with collection booths:

* Keep a stash of coins in your car. Toll machines accept dollar coins, 50-cent coins, quarters, dimes and nickels, but not pennies or bills.

* Don't assume the change machine will deduct the toll. Some ramps have machines that will make change for $1 and $5 bills, but you must still drop the toll in the basket.

* If you know your destination, you can calculate the toll online at http://www.thetollroads.com. Click on "Destinations," then "Toll Calculators."

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