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Working Out Kinks in Toll Road

Traffic: Drivers report problems with transponders that automatically deduct the cost of using highway.

August 12, 1999|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The popularity of transponders, devices that automatically debits tolls to drivers' accounts, is helping tens of thousands of Orange County motorists bypass toll booths but is also sparking a host of customer headaches.

From glitches in the equipment to a fee increase for transponder rental, the tiny devices that attach to windshields sometimes create grief for a population that is looking for a smoother ride in traffic-choked Southern California.

"Electronic toll collection is a new industry," said Lisa Telles, spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, which oversees the San Joaquin and Foothill/Eastern toll roads. "With any new industry, as you [grow], there may be glitches."

For example, the state Department of Motor Vehicles recently began issuing license plates that start with the number four. The TCA, which uses the DMV to track down violators who illegally use transponder lanes, had never updated its software so it couldn't read these particular license plates. Therefore, the information couldn't be transmitted to the DMV. That created a backlog of 16,000 violations between June 1998 and this past March. Although late fines and fees were eventually waived, Telles said the agency learned from the experience.

"What had happened was we weren't aware of some of the changes. What it has created is more dialogue," Telles said.

TCA customers who complain about a violation sometimes are on hold for up to half an hour, and customer service personnel have been rude and short with callers, Telles said.

Agency board member Collene Campbell, also a San Juan Capistrano councilwoman, reported such complaints to her colleagues at a committee meeting last week. One caller had to wait 35 minutes before talking to a "short, rude and not apologetic" worker, she said.

"That's not acceptable. That's not even close to acceptable," Campbell said.

Telles said the delays have been caused by skyrocketing business--since October, transactions have doubled to 5 million per month--and the agency is looking to hire more telephone operators to shorten the wait. The agency's staff is also exploring the rudeness claims.

"That's a problem. There's no reason why anyone should be rude to any of our customers," Telles said.

But some customers are taking a recently approved policy change--a monthly fee to be imposed on transponders that don't meet a minimum usage--as the biggest insult. Anticipation of this $1 charge, which will start being charged this fall, is the documented cause of nearly a quarter of all account closings since May.

Telles said the 588 accounts closed because of the fee is minuscule compared with the agency's roster of more than 141,000 accounts.

"Any time you have any type of fee charged, it does create concerns and questions among customers," she said. "The reality is people don't like [costs] to increase."

One critic says that while the short-term need to pay for low-use transponders is understandable, such a fee is shortsighted.

"It's a mistake because it's in the interest of the toll agencies to get as many people as possible to have the tags," said Robert Poole, of the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. "The more they do that, the less they'll need to rely on expensive toll booths in the future."

Still demand is growing. The TCA's board of directors is expected to approve a $2.8 million contract today to buy 119,000 transponders, including 5,000 never-before-designed solar-powered prototypes.

Transponders allow drivers to automatically pay levies from a prepaid account.

Nationwide, there are about 5 million transponders on the road, and the number is expected to grow to over 10 million by 2001.

Much has changed about transponders since 1993, when the TCA first started issuing them. The original mechanisms were videocassette-sized card readers mounted on car dashboards.

"This technology and the application of it will continue to improve over time," said Neil D. Schuster, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assn. in Washington.

"Really in the last 10 years, the systems have come into place . . . that makes it all click."

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