Work marks start of big toll system change

As drivers whizzed north on the San Joaquin Hills (73) toll road Thursday, some veered right toward the cash tollbooths at the Catalina View Mainline Toll Plaza rather than continue through the FasTrak lanes.

They discovered that where seven tollbooths once stood sentry, only six remained.

Construction crews had removed the center booth earlier that morning in preparation for the toll road — as well as the three others in Orange County — to go cashless.

The drivers chose among the other open lanes, shelled out the $6 weekday fee for their cars and continued on their way.

Come May, at a specific date still to be determined, traffic will be routed instead through the automated lanes. Customers can pay with FasTrak or the new ExpressAccounts, which if not prepaid will allow charges to be applied to a credit card or the driver to be billed monthly. Otherwise, a one-time-toll option will allow drivers to pay online within 48 hours of passing through a toll station.

At the Catalina View toll plaza, only trucks will continue to pull right toward what was once the cash toll plaza, where the road is less steep.

There, the truck drivers will maneuver through a retrofitted, widened lane that will be created where the center booth, now in storage, once stood.

The other booths, located on unincorporated land between Newport Beach and Aliso Viejo, will be barricaded for the time being, standing empty after almost 20 years of operation.

The booths, each measuring nearly 19 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 11 feet deep, were originally conceived by California Corridor Constructors in the early 1990s.

The designers wanted to keep in mind motorists' safety while also maintaining local aesthetics, said The Toll Roads spokeswoman Lori Olin.

"Before the toll roads were built in Orange County, toll plazas had typically been unpleasant places," she wrote in an email.

But the builders found a way around the standard unpleasantness, Olin explained, by reducing pollution effects, secluding the toll plaza visually from surrounding communities and designing unique, minimalist structures.

The group declined to build a big canopy over the plaza, as is common in other parts of the United States that get considerable amounts of snow and rain.

Just after 10 a.m. Thursday, a 40-ton, 94-foot tall crane lifted the roughly 3,600 pound, decorative top half of the center booth. Once workers would then remove the functional bottom portion.

Watching the action brought back memories of earlier days for The Toll Roads spokeswoman Lisa Telles, 49.

The 25-year employee of the company, she had been present for the grand opening of the toll booths in 1996, the year her daughter was born.

Now as Telles' daughter prepares to head off for college, some toll booths too are poised to go.

Michael Harper, 58, the operations manager for cash operations for Central Parking System, which employs those who work in the booths, had been there for the grand opening too.

He explained that of the 85 employees who work and manage the booths throughout the Orange County system, many are expected to move on to new jobs.

But they continued to work Thursday, with cash registers at the ready, as the emptied toll booth was hauled off and cleaned out of everything, save a postcard-sized picture of Jesus.

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