Toll roads to lay off attendants, stop taking cash

The Transportation Corridor Agencies plan to eliminate cash payments and toll booth jobs as they try to squeeze more out of their financially strapped highways.

The San Joaquin Hills (73) and other county toll roads will phase out cash payments over 16 months, beginning this summer.

In addition, a new toll rate hike takes effect Sunday. Cash tolls will increase by 50 cents on the 73 at the Catalina View Toll Plaza, and 25 cents at the Aliso Creek, El Toro, Newport Coast and Bonita Canyon ramp toll plazas.

The toll rate at La Paz Road in Aliso Viejo will not be raised, but FasTrak tolls on the 73 will increase by 10%. Rates vary, depending on the time of day.

The changes come about a year after the 73 restructured its roughly $2.1 billion in debt. An agreement with bondholders requires the agency to hike tolls whenever feasible. As ridership continues to fall well below projections, leaders are looking for long-term, money-saving measures.

"The upkeep costs are terribly different" between the cash and noncash systems, said Newport Beach City Councilman Rush Hill, who was recently named chairman of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency Board of Directors.

By fiscal year 2015, TCA expects to see savings that will ultimately reach $3.2 million annually. It will cost at least $9.4 million, the amount budgeted for fiscal year 2013, to implement the system.

Without toll booths, even casual users will have to register beforehand or else pay a fine for traversing the public road.

Cameras will capture license plate numbers and whoever sets up a pre-paid account registered to the photographed number will be billed. Drivers can register their plates online, over the phone or by other methods. FasTrak customers will still be able to use their transponders, the TCA website says.

Drivers who use the toll roads but haven't registered their license plate numbers will receive a violation, according to TCA spokeswoman Lori Olin. The fine is currently $57.50, plus the toll amount, although the TCA grants people a one-time reprieve for missing a toll.

"There's going to be a much broader opportunity for people to pay for the use of the toll road, without having to slow down and pull cash out of their pocket," Hill said.

"All electronic tolling" should save the agencies' costs from maintaining toll collection machines, cash counting and roughly 100 toll booth attendants.

TCA's proposed model, with its fines for the incidental driver, is akin to the 91 Express Lanes through Corona, although there drivers can chose fast lanes on an otherwise free road.

Florida's Turnpikeprovides a different all-electronic model: It takes a photo and mails a monthly bill to drivers, plus a $2.50 service charge, to the vehicle's registered owner. If someone sets up an account beforehand, they do not have to pay the service charge.

The TCA contractor that staffs the county's toll booths, Central Parking Systems, has 81 attendants throughout the county, and TCA directly employs 12, according to Olin.

She said TCA's 12 cash handlers will receive a severance and job search assistance.

The San Joaquin Hills agency has increased toll rates 12 times since fiscal year 1997, according to the bond rating agency Fitch, which makes its per-mile toll rate one of the highest in comparison to similar toll roads.

Its last rate hike was in July.

Twitter: @mreicher

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