Drivers make around 250,000 vehicle trips daily on the Orange County toll roads, paying for the chance to dodge heavier traffic on nearby public roads. Until recently, around 2.5% of the tolls weren’t being paid and people were getting dinged with heavy fines.
The number of alleged scofflaws doubled overnight to 13,500 a day when the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) removed its tollbooths and went cashless last month, relying on an electronic system to track the violators and issue them expensive tickets. The move was meant to save money for the troubled agency by removing the human factor (80 full- and part-time workers), but could also be a bonus on the revenue side.
Agency spokeswoman Lisa Telles told the Los Angeles Times it wasn’t supposed to work that way. “It was obviously more than we had anticipated,” she said, blaming the problem on bewildered motorists unprepared for the cashless drive-through. The Orange County Register reported that the number of callers to the agency seeking help rose from 2,000 per week in May 2013 to 46,000 the first week of this month.
Many of the new callers did not get through.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who sits on the toll agency board, described drivers pulled off the road trying to figure out how they were going to avoid breaking the law, or what to do afterward. The answer to the first part—for those folks who hadn’t opened a toll road account and purchased a transponder—was drive on through and break the law. Drivers figured that one out.
The answer to the second part was go online within 48 hours and pay your toll or be liable for a first-time fine of $57.50. Many motorists who had not gleaned that information from news sources or signs flashing overhead as they drove by apparently did not figure that out.
On Monday, the toll agency announced a reprieve for first-time offenders who don’t pay online on time—but want to be legal—that will last until at least Labor Day. They have 30 days to make on their new debt. “Hopefully, this additional time will help riders understand the toll changes so they can choose the personal payment method that works best for them,” Spitzer said in the announcement.
Hopefully. Most toll road users (87%) are hooked up. They have toll road accounts, transponders, an app on their smartphones and computers for navigating the 51 miles across four different roads. Visitors, the unconnected and others who are unsuspecting or uncaring make up the 13% who generate a lot of the violations.
The agency’s Facebook page is chock full of complaints like this one from Suzette Salcido:
“OMG, my son used the toll road on 6/8 without knowing he couldn't use cash until it was too late. We just got a bill for $120.00 for a toll that used to cost us a couple of dollars. This is unbelievable for a first offense. We all have perfectly clean driving records so I've no clue what the average cost is for making a mistake on a toll road but $120? Really? I will never use those roads ever again. This is simply wrong!”
Along with the grace period, the agency announced it was using some of the savings from laying off tollbooth workers to hire 10 temporary customer service representatives. It is updating its website and putting up more warning signs.
The cost of driving on the toll roads is about to go up, even for those who obey the rules. The agency is having trouble balancing its books and announced earlier this month that it will be raising its rates beginning July 1. The agency is also trying to refinance its bond debt on the individual roads, which would stretch out payments into mid-century.
Toll rates have been raised a dozen times since 1997 and ridership has been far short of projections, leaving revenues in shambles. Toll operators blame the bad economy, improvements to the public highways and opposition to expansion plans for much of their woes.
Apparently, it was difficult for the agency to read signposts of the future and react in a timely fashion to changes happening right in front of it. It happens.