Wednesday, May 30, 2012

For Whom the Toll Beeps (Or, Playing TAG in Santiago)

In California, where I spend most of the year, toll roads are anathema. We do have plenty of bridges that collect tolls, but there’s a reason that many of our highways are, for better or worse, misleadingly called “freeways” (we pay for them but, except for the bridges, we don’t usually pay directly out of pocket to use them).
It’s different in Chile, where the Panamericana from La Serena south to Puerto Montt – a distance of roughly 1,500 km – has 15 toll plazas that exact a total of nearly 35,000 pesos (about US$70) from anybody who drives the distance. That’s not counting the cost of driving through Santiago, which is a little more complicated.

That’s because Santiago has its own electronic toll system that requires anyone who drives those roads to pay a distance-based rate that varies according to the time of day, with the morning and evening rush hours the costliest. Santiago drivers have gotten accustomed to the so-called TAG or Televía system and most, like me, have an electronic transponder that registers the tolls automatically. It can be confusing, though, to drivers from other parts of the country and especially those from outside the country, such as Argentines who frequently travel to Chile.

The TAG is not obligatory, but paying the toll is, even if you don’t have a transponder. Relatively few people outside Santiago do, and some of them go out of their way, when visiting the capital, to use surface streets rather than the limited access highways. A friend of mine from La Serena tried this when picking up someone at the international airport but, eventually, had to pay a fine when he found the alternative route too complicated and couldn’t avoid the toll road. Cameras record the license plates of every vehicle, so enforcement is simple if sometimes slow.
For those who need to drive in the capital, there is an alternative: approaching the city limits, they can purchase a pase diario (daily pass) for 4800 pesos (a little less than US$10) at any roadside Copec Pronto convenience store. Those who fail to do so draw a fine but, even then, it’s possible to purchase the pass retroactively up to 20 days later; after three days, the cost increases to 6900 pesos (about US$14). For overseas visitors, it’s worth adding that cars rented in the capital will have a transponder to record the tolls automatically (to be incorporated in the rental cost). Those rented elsewhere may not have one, though, and you will be directly responsible for the toll.

While Chilean vehicles may not be able to escape the Santiago tolls, foreign vehicles might. It wouldn’t surprise me if many Argentine drivers, either unaware or evasive, use the city’s highways without paying. If they get stopped by the Carabineros police, though, they could be in trouble.

The Panamericana is not Chile’s only toll road. There are others from Santiago to the port cities of Valparaiso and San Antonio, and between Chillán and Concepción. There’s also a new four-lane divided segment connecting the Atacama desert cities of Vallenar, Copiapó, and Caldera.

Let’s Choose (Moon) Patagonia! (Update)
To date, I’ve had only one correct answer on my geography quiz from the previous post, asking readers to name the Chilean volcano that affected travel to Argentine Patagonia prior to the 2011 eruption of Puyehue. Because of that, I’ll add a couple clues – the eruption in question took place in 2008, and required the evacuation of its namesake village.
If nobody else comes up with a correct answer by the weekend, I’ll postpone giving away the second copy of Moon Patagonia. Please send your answer to southerncone (at), and not to the comment box.

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