Golden Gate bridge toll collectors get fond farewells - nostalgiafest for last 'toll takers'
By Peter Samuel
2013-03-26: The Golden Gate Bridge toll booths will be empty Wednesday morning by the time you read this - the first time in 75 years of the bridge existence. The plan was that sometime after midnight Tuesday night Pacific time they'd "cut over" to a new all-electronic toll system. The last toll collectors were due to leave their booths for the last cash collection shift in the early minutes of Wednesday. at around 00:01. On America's most loved bridge, ranking up there as a huge visitor attraction and icon of America with the Statue of Liberty, the White House, and the Empire State Building, the change has captured major media attention.
Mary Currie longtime PR has put out ten press releases on the approach to AET conversion just this year. She organized a series of 'media availabilities' to accommodate the demands to report the end of cash toll collection. Lunchtime Tuesday a couple of veteran toll collectors Jacquie Dean and Dawnette Reed were making themselves available for interviews. To see the last cash tolls collected there was a Media Availability from 11pm to 1am, and there was a briefing scheduled for 5:30am to report on how the cut-over went and to see the traffic flowing through the toll lanes on the first morning commute without cash.
And the note to the media says: "As of tomorrow morning, there will be no more toll collectors available for interviews."
No "bridge officers," the odd old job title the bridge authority used for toll collectors in their luminescent yellow with GGB-red striped safety jackets. Some 30 jobs were terminated as part of the switch to all-electronic, although that produced a mix of retirements, severances, and transfers to other jobs at the bridge authority which runs ferries and buses as well as the bridge itself.
Empty booths stay for now
For the time being the traffic will continue to flow through the toll lanes between the islands and their empty booths and the canopy and toll equipment above will remain.
No open road tolling here.
All-electronic, but for now lane-constrained, the posted maximum speed is 25mph.
A big communication challenge is posed by the retention of all the familiar physical toll collection infrastructure of stop-to-pay. It just looks like a place you're expected to stop.
The regular customers won't have any problem, you suspect, because they have their FasTrak electronic toll tag and they're used to rolling through at 20 to 25mph.
No change for them.
That pricey human touch
A few regulars probably do stick with cash and enjoy the human contact of a wave and a brief chat with a toll collector, though you have to suspect the media coverage in its relentless reportage of the "loss of the human touch" vastly exaggerates the number. It's a pricey bit of human touch if you do it every morning rather than get a transponder. The cash premium has been a buck - $6 cash versus $5 FasTrak, and of course a slower trip.
But no doubt there are some. The Golden Gate Bridge authority has always encouraged its toll collectors to be personable and friendly, and to take time to chat, even if a bit of a queue forms behind the talkative driver. Many cash motorists are visitors not in any hurry, and perhaps wanting some question about the bridge answered, or directions given. That's a practical human touch.
Prior to this change cash collection has been quite a large 30% of tolls collected - about 17,000 day average cash trasnactions through the year compared to 38,000 per day by transponder.
Tolling is southbound inwards to San Francisco only. Cost of collecting cash tolls was 83c versus 35c via FasTrak transponder. The end of cash payment at the toll plaza is estimated to produce net savings of about $2m/year.
In the weekday morning commute hours cash has been only 14% and in the afternoon 21%. But off-peak and weekends with visitors more common cash has been as high as 50% of total toll payments.
With all the red steel and glass of the booths, the gores and the islands remaining and the familiar toll canopy over the top, the natural tendency of cash-payers especially visitors is to look for a collector in a booth. The Bay area after all has another seven toll bridges run by the Bay Area Toll Authority (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) and all still have cash collection, though they too are planning an end to cash booth collection.
So they've invested in a huge new sign atop the canopy devoted to the massage 'no cash collected,' 'move on through,' 'no stopping.'
Those without a FasTrak transponder (California Title 21 protocols hardbody from 3M) now pay the one dollar premium for license plate camera read tolls - pay-by-plate, a license plate account prepaid or debitcarded, or a vehicle owner search and invoice for which extra fees are leveied.
Off-road payment stations take cash
Strictly speaking the Golden Gate Bridge has not gone cashless. At the toll plaza yes, but the Bridge now provides ten off-road toll payment locations with touchscreen machines for receiving cash, or bank cards and provides for single trips or establishment of an anonymous license plate based account. Also catered to is top-up of a FasTrak transponder account, payment of a toll invoice or violation charge.
Cost of the conversion to AET was put at $3.24m when the decision was made by the board of directors January 28 2011. At that time they scheduled the cut-over to AET for September 2012, so they slipped about six months.
TRMI installed the first computerized toll system for cash collection at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza back in 1981.
InTrans the Long Island based company later acquired by CS and now Schneider Electric installed the first modern electronic RFID system at the Golden Gate Bridge in the early 1990s. That was replaced by a modernized FasTrak Title 21 system in eleven multimode lanes which was installed by TRMI in 2006 - the system basically in use today. (REVISED)
For the current AET upgrade TRMI:
- supplied new and faster lane 3M Sirit controllers to enhance processing speed and power to handle the increased volume of images from transitioning to AET
- updated the plaza functionality to provide Bridge staff with more robust remote control and monitoring of the toll lanes
- fitted out a new dedicated carpool lane
- designed a new suite of reports to provide the bridge officials greater insight into their traffic and revenue demographics
- managed multilevel testing of increased image processing power and modifications in data flow and reporting to and from the CSC
The conversion to AET saw back office changes performed by Xerox/ACS, overall management and consulting including software work by TRMI and Traffic Technologies Inc (Stan Weiss, Michael Kolb).
Since they are maintaining the lane-constrained arrangement minimal new equipment was needed. That big sign was the major hardware buy!
Going open road decision a few years away
Any decision on going to open road tolling is some years away. The bridge is part of a designated National Recreation Area administered by the US National Park Service. That US agency has jurisdiction over major changes such as demolition of the toll plaza which may be regarded as requiring protection an "historic artifacts."
The Bridge has not yet decided to pursue that. (REVISED)
Toll collectors reminisce
In addition the Bridge has a huge project just starting to rebuild the Presidio Parkway immediately downstream of the toll plaza for southbound traffic. There would be little point in speeding traffic through the toll point as long as that is under construction.
In interviews the toll collectors told of the gifts they've received from motorists over the years and the tips they've taken, and people's gratitude when they call after them for overpayment and how they love their customers and will miss them. They admit to letting some of their favorite people through without collecting the toll.
"In serving the 110,000 drivers who cross the bridge each day (55,000 actually through the toll lanes), the toll takers are much more than cashiers. They're part counselor (listening to people's daily troubles), part concierge (constantly giving directions and tourism tips) and part cop (weeding out counterfeit bills and reporting drunken drivers)," writes a reporter for the Marin Independent Journal.
That newspaper circulating among many of the bridge's regular users on the northern peninsula called the changeover a "bittersweet sign of the times."
It continued: "Over the years, Golden Gate Bridge officials have long boasted about having the nicest and most personable toll-takers in the Bay Area. They've had good reason to brag.
"But the district also has been faced with difficult financial challenges, in part due to a downturn in the number of daily commuters driving across the span. The switch became a financial necessity, officials say.
"Golden Gate's toll-takers deal with people of all walks of life, new drivers and older motorists, wealthy and broke, friendly and cranky, and rushed and leisurely. For years, they've been the everyday ambassadors for the bridge, fitting in a smile and a greeting into the required precision of their jobs, collecting tolls from 110,000 passing motorists daily.
"Toll-taker Dean says, "We love (our customers), and we're really going to miss them."
"After having been on the job, around the clock, for more than 75 years, the Golden Gate Bridge's toll-takers will be missed, as well." end quotes
It is described as the first major toll bridge in America to go all-electronic. The Henry Hudson Bridge on the northern tip of Manhattan has been all-electronic since last year and the Seattlle Washington SR520 floating bridge, and a couple in Texas. Many have open road tolling for highway speed electronic tolling with cash available. But perhaps none of these are as large in the imagination as the Golden Gate.
previous report on decision to go AET January 2011: