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Toll ransportation Agenciesy Wants Cheaters to Pay $5 Moreto Fine Toll Cheaters an Extra $5

Transit: Drivers who skirt the booth would be fined $30. If they still ignore notice, their bill would be $60. Voting on changes is scheduled.

June 05, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trying to reduce its high rate of toll cheaters, the operators of Orange County's largest turnpike system on Tuesday proposed that fines and processing fees be increased for motorists who refuse to pay.

The recommendations are part of an 18-month effort by the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies to improve toll enforcement throughout the authority's 51-mile network of highways.

"We want to close the gap in our losses and make sure fines keep up with toll increases," said Michael Leahy, TCA's director of toll operations.

"This should tighten things up."

The Transportation Corridor Agencies, based in Irvine, operates the Foothill, Eastern, and San Joaquin Hills toll roads.

Included in the system is a short stretch of Laguna Canyon Road. When a vehicle is identified passing a toll gate without paying, a notice is sent to the registered owner.

If the notice is ignored, the penalties double to $50 from $25.

The operations and finance committee for the San Joaquin Hills toll road unanimously recommended TCA raise both fines and processing fees to $30 from $25 per violation.

The changes would increase the maximum penalty to $60 for each unpaid toll.

By charging toll-booth runners higher penalties, Leahy estimated, the collection of tolls and penalties could increase by $1 million to $1.5million a year.

Alarmed by a growing tendency of motorists to speed through toll plazas without paying, TCA officials began to beef up enforcement in December 2000.

At the time, roughly half the scofflaws could not be identified by cameras, and unpaid tolls and fines mounted.

Some motorists were so brazen that they placed towels over their license plates or stationed accomplices in their trunks who stuck their arms out to block the plates from the view of cameras.

Since then, TCA has raised fines, added dozens of video cameras to photograph violators and created a special team to track down repeat offenders.

The California Highway Patrol has increased patrols.

TCA replaced its primary enforcement contractor, Lockheed Martin IMS, which used to reimburse the agencies for lost tolls whenever enforcement cameras failed to identify violators.

TCA officials complained that the video images of cheaters were often so poor or fuzzy that they could not make out license-plate numbers, leaving no clue whom to fine.

A variety of new contractors, offering higher collection rates, has since been hired.

The TCA has reduced the amount of outstanding tolls from a high of $2.85 million in 2000 to $1.7million in 2001.

Last year, violations involved 1.2% of traffic, compared to 3% in 1999.

At one time, the system's rate of toll cheating was double the national average.

Besides the higher fines, committee members recommended a $2 administrative fee per transaction be imposed on FasTrak subscribers if their transponders fail to register tolls because of driver error, such as leaving the device in a glove box or another vehicle.

Mounted on dashboards or windshields, transponders automatically record tolls on a motorist's account.

"The fees are intended to discourage repeat violators and to encourage customers to properly mount their transponders," Leahy said.

The operations and finance committee for the Foothill-Eastern toll road is expected to approve the fines and fees today.

Next week, the boards of directors for both the Foothill-Eastern and the San Joaquin Hills tollways will decide whether to put the changes into effect.

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