Private California toll road needs drivers to get rolling

  Carol J. Castaneda; Jonathan T. Lovitt

  12/28/1995

  USA Today

  FINAL

  Page 03A

  (Copyright 1995)

 

  ANAHEIM, Calif. - California opened its first high-tech private toll road

  Wednesday, the latest step by cash-strapped states seeking to cure

  ever-worsening urban traffic.

 

  Cars rolled onto the 10-mile "91 Express Lanes" - two toll lanes in either

  direction down the middle of Orange County's overloaded Route 91, the

  eight-lane Riverside Freeway used by 250,000 vehicles a day.

 

  The road is one of few such traffic-busting attempts in the country. Millions of

  vehicles jam the nation's highways each day, and states lack cash to build roads,

  especially as federal highway money dries up.

 

  But the California road builder faces a risky future: Many drivers might prefer

  the free ride. Wednesday, only a trickle of Californians opted for the toll road.

 

  The nation's first private toll road in a century, built in Virginia outside

  Washington, D.C., is struggling to survive because not enough drivers are using

  it.

 

  The California Private Transportation Co. spent $126 million to build the Orange

  County road on a state-owned median and will operate it for 35 years. No state

  or federal money was spent.

 

  Company officials say the road is a speedier alternative to the badly congested

  freeway. They say drivers can cut 20 minutes off a trip that can take at least an

  hour during the height of the rush hour. The speed limit is 65 mph.

 

  To regulate the flow of traffic, the road features a sliding scale of tolls: from 25

  cents overnight to $2.50 in morning and evening rush hours. Car pools,

  motorcycles, disabled veterans and emission-free vehicles travel free.

 

  "We don't make any illusions about this being the Kmart of the roadway," toll

  road company spokesman Greg Brooks says.

 

  Technology is supposed to keep traffic moving. The key is a 3 1/4-square-inch

  electronic meter on a car's windshield.

 

  Road users buy the gadget before venturing onto the road, paying for as many

  trips as they wish. Company officials would not say how many drivers bought

  meters for opening day. "It is in the many thousands," Brooks says.

 

  If a driver doesn't have a meter, the road is off limits. The penalty for illegal use

  is $100 for the first offense.

 

  Antennas over the road pick up a radio signal from the meter, deducting the toll

  from the prepaid amount. Drivers need not slow at a toll booth. But observers

  watch for cheaters.

 

  Similar technology is operating in Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Texas

  and Colorado. Other states looking at using transponders include Rhode Island,

  Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware and New York.

 

  Virginia's toll road is different from California's in one important way: It is an

  entirely private effort, from the purchase of rights-of-way to construction to

  operation.

 

  And it's not paying off.

 

  "Traffic is lighter than what we had expected," says Michael Crane, chairman of

  Toll Road Investors Partnership II. The company spent $326 million to build the

  14-mile road through a fast-growing area from Dulles International Airport to

  Leesburg.

 

  The road opened Sept. 29. Traffic is averaging less than 10,000 vehicles a day;

  the company had projected 33,000.

 

  The main gripe: the $1.75 toll, regardless of where or when drivers enter the

  road.

 

  "I'm appalled by the lack of traffic on it," says Charles Grant, a Loudoun County

  supervisor when the road was built through his district.

 

  "I would never do it totally private again," Crane says. "It's too expensive."

  GRAPHIC,b/w,Sam Ward, USA TODAY (Map); PHOTO,b/w,Kevork

  Djansezian,AP