Private California toll road needs drivers to get rolling
Carol J. Castaneda; Jonathan T. Lovitt
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
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
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
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
"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