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O.C. toll roads to eliminate cash payments, toll-booth operators

The 73

Operators of Orange County’s toll-road network are planning to eliminate cash payments and toll-booth jobs as they try to squeeze more out of their financially strapped pay-to-drive highways.

Drivers who use the route 73, 261, 241 and 133 toll roads will need to have payment accounts linked to their transponders or their license plates in order to use the corridors. Cash payments will be phased out over the next 16 months.

The FasTrak transponders or the license-plate accounts electronically deduct money from a driver’s credit line.

In addition, a rate hike takes effect Sunday. Cash tolls will increase between 25 and 50 cents at most toll plazas and  FasTrak tolls will increase between 5% and 10%. Rates vary, depending on the time of day.

The changes, which will eliminate about 100 toll booth jobs, come about a year after the 73 toll-road project 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 below projections, leaders are looking for long-term, money-saving measures.

Without toll booths, even casual users will have to register beforehand or else pay a fine for using the public road. Cameras will capture license plate numbers, and motorists who have set up pre-paid accounts registered to the photographed number will be billed.

FasTrak customers will still be able to use their transponders, the Transportation Corridor Agencies website says.

Drivers who use the toll roads but haven't registered their license plate numbers will receive a violation unless they pay the toll online within 48 hours, according to Lori Olin, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which oversees the entire network of tollways.

The fine is currently $57.50, plus the toll amount.

"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," said Newport Beach City Councilman Rush Hill, chairman of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency board of directors.

The TCA contractor that staffs the county's toll booths, Central Parking Systems, has 81 attendants throughout the county. The TCA directly employs 12 toll booth workers, according to Olin. Those 12 cash handlers will receive severance pay.

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.

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-- Mike Reicher

 Photo: The 73 tollway winds through the hills near Laguna Beach. Credit: Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times.

 

 
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