California Commuters Escape the Congestion On a Cashless Toll Road

Sharon Badenoch has a secret weapon against the bumper-to-bumper traffic she slogs through each working day.

For her 25-mile daily commute from Riverside County to Orange County, Calif., the bookkeeper places a wallet-sized gadget behind the windshield of her Chevy Corsica. With a nearly inaudible beep, the electronic "transponder" allows her access to two, private express lanes running down the middle of Interstate 91 - away from the 250,000 commuters who regularly turn this 10-mile stretch into one of the country's worst traffic nightmares.

"I used to leave at 6:30 a.m. to get to work on time, but now I can leave at 7:15 and not be a raging maniac when I get there," says the mother of three. She says she gets home at night about 45 minutes earlier as well. "I can spend that time with my family, put my feet up, or just get a whole list of things done."

In California's car-crazy culture, the idea of paying for passage on a highway is an anathema to some, a creeping affront to a way of life. But initial suspicions have melted as Ms. Badenoch and about 50,000 other commuters have begun using the nation's first private, cashless tollway.

Without stopping at tollbooths to drop quarters in a basket or picking up a ticket, subscribers are auto- matically debited the proper toll from pre-paid accounts. The price depends on the time of day the road is used: more for peak hours, less for off-peak.

"Congestion pricing is what allows us to charge less for nonpeak traffic hours and more during crunch time," says Joseph Brahm, operations manager for the California Private Transportation Company, the private firm that built the highway for the state and now oversees the four-lane tollway in a 35-year lease agreement.

"That's what enables us to ensure subscribers they will always have a wide-open freeway," he says.

In an era where long commutes are on the rise and tolerance for tax hikes to pay for roads or public transportation is on the decline, such public-private partnerships are increasingly popular.

Twelve states in addition to California - including Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, Virginia, Washington, Oregon, and Florida - have passed legislation permitting public-private funding. But the Anaheim freeway is the first to offer the convenience of cashless tolls - many users sign agreements allowing the company to charge their credit cards - without any state or federal money.

"Because of gas prices and better fuel economy, the tax revenues which support highway building have not kept pace with the growth in travel," says Robert Poole, president of the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based public policy think-tank. "If Americans are going to be able to rebuild major roads as they reach the end of [those roads'] lives over the next 20 years, they are going to have to come up with additional funding sources."

For Badenoch, the monthly charge for her 20 days of commuting averages about $20, automatically deducted from her Mastercard. Although peak-hour charges (5 to 9 a.m., 3 to 7 p.m.) run $2.50, off hours run as low as 25 cents. An electronic sign at each end of the tollway - commuters must take all 10 miles or nothing - flashes the current price.

Known as "Fastrak," the idea arose out of 1989 California state legislation that attempted to change the way the Golden State - especially in the south - dealt with its heavy reliance on cars.

With roughly 7 million registered vehicles in Los Angeles County alone, the region's 500 miles of highways were destined, by some esti- mates, to slow down as much as 7 miles per hour in some stretches by the year 2000.

"California realized it wasn't going to solve all its public transportation needs with public money ... and no one wanted to raise taxes," says Joe El Harake, project manager for the California Transportation Department. Four demonstration projects were begun with private firms developing tollways as a way to recover their own investments. The I-91 project is the first to come to fruition.

THOUGH some taxpaying citizens originally objected to having to pay a supplemental fee for road use, Fastrak is getting high marks from users and nonusers. As part of their lease agreement with the state, the tollway's operators allow carpools of three or more, handicapped users, motorcyclists, and owners of zero-emission vehicles to ride for free .

Noting that traffic congestion was the No. 1 complaint of residents in Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties in the early 1980s, David Elbaum, director of planning and development for the Orange County Transportation Authority, says Fastrak has helped change that. Officials are looking to extend Fastrak farther along I-91, and similar ideas are moving along in San Diego and the state's Central Valley.

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