Highway bandits are real! They’re disguised as California toll roads!

I know, I’ve been conspicuously absent of late. Lots of things—blog-worthy things—going on, (don’t let me forget about the dead rooster…) I just haven’t made time to write about them.

This week I paid (read: charged to the credit card) $114 in fines for a $6 toll booth incident from our California vacation. *hangs head in shame*

I’m the girl who has never had a speeding ticket. My ONLY traffic violation was a disputed “failure to come to a complete stop” ticket when I was 18 years old. That was a very long time ago. Hubby got stopped for speeding in Utah. He was “invited” to go sit in the Utah state trooper’s SUV with the K9 unit. (This is apparently standard procedure for anyone with Colorado license plates nowadays, thanks to that legalized marijuana thing.) Anyway, he got off with a warning. I, on the other hand…

On the way home from Carlsbad, Calif., we opted for the fastest route, which took us on a toll road. No problem, I thought. I took a number of toll roads on my road trip to NYC last summer: Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, etc. You either pay when you get on the toll road, or you pay when you get off. Simple. We paid extra a time or two for exiting at rest stops along the way. I’m altogether OK with paying a bit to travel a well-maintained route with less traffic when I’m on a road trip.

New Jersey Turnpike Exit 11 Tollbooth at night, 1992

The way toll roads back East operate is a bit disconcerting… multiple lanes of traffic converge into multiple toll booths, and then everyone randomly merges (without lines, speed limits, or instructions) back into four or six lanes. I thought that was bad. Actually, I had a very impolite word for it that will not be repeated here. I couldn’t imagine anything less traveler-friendly…

Enter California.

The road was lovely. Smooth asphalt (a treat for Colorado drivers), and a nice break from the bogged down Orange County traffic. We cruised along, enjoying the scenery and looking for the toll booths. I spotted one off to the side of the road at one exit. You had to purposefully leave the highway to go through the toll booth. But that wasn’t our exit, so I kept going. The East Coast toll roads worked that way. You pay at your exit for however long you’ve been on the turnpike. I glanced at our Maps app… we had miles to go before the toll road merged onto the Interstate.

As our exit approached I saw another toll booth off to the side of the road. There were no signs, no warnings, no funneling of traffic into the toll lanes. Nothing. OK, I thought, maybe there’s a REAL toll booth where the toll road merges with the highway.

Nope. Nada. We merged onto our highway without paying any tolls, and without any further instructions. Fingers crossed, we continued onward. Maybe if you don’t stop, there’s no toll. HA. DUMMY!

We got the “notice of violation” in the mail this week. $6 in tolls and $114 in fees for ignoring the poorly-designed toll booths. Oh, wait, they’re only poorly-designed if you are the hapless, uninformed, unsuspecting visitor. For the designers and developers, it’s a great money-making scheme.

Gee, California, is gouging your unsuspecting tourists with mega-fines on your privately-funded toll roads the way to win visitor dollars? (That’s right, after some research, I learned the toll roads we ended up on are privately funded by big corporations. Can you spell GREED, children? Welcome to America. Now, can you spell DISGUSTED?)

Anyway… all humiliation and financial trauma aside, our fines are paid, and we won’t be returning to California anytime soon, at least not on their highway-bandit modeled toll road system.


UPDATE!!! As of July 10, our fine was reduced to $25. I received the following email in response to my comment on The Toll Roads website.

At the time of travel, you bypassed the Orange Grove and Windy Ridge Mainline Toll Plaza on the 133 and 241 Toll Roads in the FasTrak lanes reserved for prepaid toll patrons only.  You were  required to stop at the toll location and pay the required toll due to a toll attendant or a toll collecting machine. Since a payment was not received and/or the driver did not have a valid FasTrak transponder in the vehicle, a toll violation was mailed to the registered renter.
 In response to your explanation, as a courtesy, we have reduced the amount due from $120.75 to $25.75.  

Sometimes it pays to state your case. Still doesn’t solve the problem of lousy signage and notification, but at least they were “courteous” enough to reduce the fine. California, you’re forgiven.  

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