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Elite Team Toiling to Perfect Tollway Collection System

June 01, 1993|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

IRVINE — In a small, whitewashed industrial building in east Irvine, one of the world's largest defense firms has gathered 20 people to create an automated vehicle identification and toll collection system for Orange County's first tollway.

It's like starting a company in a garage, a la Apple Computer. Part of the office is a garage, where the elite team assembled by a unit of aerospace giant Lockheed Corp. holds meetings.

Next month, however, the crew will expand and move into a 16,000-square-foot warehouse next door, with a vault to hold future toll revenue and an alley out back that will serve as a short, 25-m.p.h. test track.

Already, some equipment is being tested with computer software, including an automated coin machine and an infrared device that helps determine whether a vehicle is a car or truck or pulling a trailer.

The software, sophisticated electronic devices and miles of fiber-optic cable must all be in place by October. That's when an initial, 3.6-mile segment of the Foothill tollway is expected to open near Mission Viejo, closing a major gap in the south Orange County road system. Financed with developer fees and tax-supported bonds, the Foothill will be California's first major toll road since before World War II.

Fewer than 5,000 motorists per day are expected to use the first segment, which will cost about 50 cents each way. But, for Lockheed, which signed a $600-million contract with toll road officials a few months ago, it's a do-or-die situation.

"Simply put, if our system doesn't work on the first day, we don't have an old one to fall back on," said Anthony P. Frate, Lockheed's vice president of transportation systems and a former manager of Maryland's statewide toll road agency.

Because there's so little time before opening day, Lockheed has permission from its client, Orange County's Transportation Corridor Agencies, to install an interim system that won't be as fancy as the one expected to be in place by 1995.

Still, the interim system will employ AT&T's Smart Card, a kind of credit card encoded with data that slips into a transponder mounted on a dashboard, like a computer disk into a disk drive. The transponder communicates with a roadside computer as the vehicle drives by, in order to have the motorist's preset account debited for each use of the tollway.

The corridor agency will purchase the transponders from Lockheed and make them available to the public around Labor Day, Frate said. It's likely that the devices will be distributed free, by mail order, in return for a security fee or minimum deposit to set up a tollway charge account.

Without a Smart Card and transponder, drivers will have to stop at tollbooths and pay by hand.

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Demonstrating how the transponder works, Dennis Bennett, Lockheed's on-site project manager, put a blue Smart Card into a thin slot at the front of a hand-held transponder. Immediately, a light blinked on the transponder's front panel.

"The lights tell you whether the balance in your toll account is getting too low, or whether there was enough money in our account for the toll you were just charged," said Bennett, who once managed the integration of more than 300 computer systems within San Diego's municipal government. "Citations can be mailed to violators, because we're going to capture an image of your license plate as you drive through."

The road, which is a state highway, will also be patrolled by the California Highway Patrol.

By the time all three South County tollways are open, Lockheed expects to employ 400 toll collectors and systems operators. But the stereotyped East Coast tollbooth veterans, known for their rudeness and crusty demeanor, aren't welcome here, Frate said.

"That's not the type of person we want," he said. "We're starting from scratch with toll operators. . . . Our main hiring competition might be Disneyland. We like an image for our people. We want them to be very service-oriented."

Employees will undergo a two-week training program that includes stress-reduction techniques. "It's not just training people to make change," Frate said. "It's how to deal with people who might be less than friendly."

Toll operators will also receive supplemental training and spot, unscheduled training sessions, Frate said. Applicants will take a skills test. Salaries are expected to be about $8 an hour, although that figure hasn't been finalized.

"I believe we're best off when we can find people at a certain skill level," Frate said. "If they're overqualified, they tend to be unhappy. . . . I think there's been a lot of success with senior citizens. The work occupies them, and they're appreciative of the modest salaries they're able to receive, that supplement other sources of income they may have."

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