I don't know how many Orange County residents have dealt with toll roads in some previous life, but those who haven't are going to learn the hard way that the biggest pain about toll roads is not how much it costs to drive them but how you pay.
I lived with toll roads for 10 years in and around Chicago and drove multiple toll roads on a trip to the Midwest last summer and that got me musing about how they plan to collect my money on the toll roads now being planned for Orange County.
So to find out I called the Transportation Corridor Agency in charge of building our three pioneering toll roads.
Susan Marzec, who was sitting in that day for executive director John Meyer, filled me in. And it turned out that even though completion of the first corridor is probably 10 years away, they already have a pretty good idea how they're going to put the bite on us. And, of course, it involves high-tech. None of those primitive boxes that ate my coins in Illinois or the ticket that got punched in Kansas and Pennsylvania.
"We're required by law to have the most technically advanced toll system in existence," Marzec explained.
That, it turns out, means something called the Automated Vehicle Identification System--barring the discovery in the next few years that it can be done by ESP. Under this glitzy automated system, the driver would open a toll account and be assigned a computerized card that looks like a credit card and carries the driver's individual number. This card would be displayed at some designated spot on the car, probably the windshield. At each exit, a gadget generating a light beam would pick up the number on your card as you drive by and transfer it to a computer that debits your account. "You'll be able to drive through the exit as fast as you like," Marzec says.
Although this system is widely used in Europe, its only application in the United States is on the Dallas Turnpike where it is now being installed. But not to worry. "By the time we get to installing this system," Marzec says, "it will have been quite thoroughly tested."
Now that I'm many miles removed from actually having to deal with them, I was immediately overcome by nostalgia for the old systems. Admittedly, they had their bugs. Rush hour around Chicago sometimes meant queuing up for as long as half an hour to pay up at the exits, even with the automatic machines. But they also offered the charm of perpetually living dangerously.
Mostly this involved pitching the money into the coin bins. If your thoughts were drifting, your aim less than accurate, or you were too impatient to wait until the car was in proper position, one or more of the coins (the toll is always some odd number such as 40 cents) would end up rolling around on the ground. This situation became downright perilous when you had no more change and there were 30 cars backed up behind you, all with tired, angry drivers at the wheel. The only solution was to get out of your car and try to find the nearest human toll collector, hoping all the time that no one waiting in the line would shoot you before you got back to the safety of your car.
One slow weekend day, in a whimsical mood--and in the interests of research--I allowed my three children to pay the 40-cent toll in pennies. They threw in the first 35 en masse, then fed the rest one at a time. Sure enough, on receiving the 40th penny, the green light flashed, the gate opened and we sped away from the line beginning to form behind us. The system was thus vindicated.
It appeared that Orange County was going to be denied these modest pleasures until Marzec explained that the toll roads would still have to make use of toll gates because not everyone using the roads will want to open a drawing account and receive a magic card. So perhaps all is not lost after all. The agency has not yet decided how to collect tolls from these infrequent users, and I suppose it's possible that nothing better than the coin bins will show up in the next decade. I find a certain amount of pleasure in that thought.
The Orange County toll roads are dealing with some very special problems not common to this genre. Access is sharply limited on most toll roads to make collection easier, but in Orange County, tolls will only be collected until the original construction cost has been paid. After that, the roads become free. "So they have to be designed with that in mind," says Marzec, "Which means we'll probably have more on- and off-ramps than a normal toll road but not as many as a freeway."
The corridor agency even knows how much it is going to cost to drive these new roads. Tolls will be assessed at the rate of about 9 cents per mile, which means that the San Joaquin corridor will cost about $1 end-to-end, and the Foothill corridor about twice that.
In my driving last summer, I discovered that the new toll road coin bins don't accept pennies. We'll probably have those advanced models here, and I suppose that's progress. But it isn't nearly as much fun.