March 27, 2013 / 9:08 AM / 4 years ago

Human touch becomes history as Golden Gate moves to all-electronic tolls

4 Min Read

Two bridge workers cover a display at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza in preparation of the tolling system conversion in San Francisco, California March 27, 2013.Stephen Lam

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - In her job as a toll collector on the Golden Gate Bridge, Jacquie Dean has watched a cavalcade of humanity roll past her booth, from naked partiers to a generous soul who handed her a lobster dinner one holiday.

All that came to an end just after midnight on Wednesday when an all-electronic payment system replaced Dean and her co-workers.

Dean had planned to stay at her job until her retirement in 13 years. Instead she saw the end of an era in the Bay area, as the Golden Gate lost the human touch in a change officials say is expected to ease congestion and save a projected $2 million a year in labor costs.

Dean spent the past 19 years collecting Golden Gate Bridge tolls and says she feels sad about leaving the job, just like 27 other toll collectors made redundant since January 2011, when the bridge district board of directors decided to move to all-electronic payments.

"Our customers love us," Dean said. "We love them. You have customers who remember your birthday. It's a relationship that's reciprocated through the years."

It was also a relationship that developed every day in increments of six seconds. That is the amount of time the toll workers were supposed to spend with each customer. Some transactions took longer, and some were shorter.

Dean has waved through everything from a Pinto to a Lexus carrying expectant mothers clutching bulging bellies, feet on the dashboard, breath labored.

"I'll put the $6 in for you," she has told the worried fathers-to-be. "Go have a baby."

Dean also reminisced about a motorist who one New Year's Eve brought a lobster dinner to her tollbooth, complete with scalloped potatoes and pumpkin cheesecake.

An empty toll booth is seen at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza in San Francisco, California March 27, 2013.Stephen Lam

And Dean laughed about men in wigs who came through on Halloween and - this being freewheeling San Francisco - introduced themselves as Gentleman Godiva, male versions of Lady Godiva, who rode her horse in the nude.

Dean said she took the men at their word that they were wearing only wigs, and trained herself never to look down.

Dean is unsure of her plans now she has lost her job.

Slideshow (4 Images)

The loss of the toll workers is a historic change for a bridge that has been celebrated in song and long ago became an American landmark and an icon of Art Deco design.

"The face of welcoming someone to San Francisco is changing," said bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie.

An estimated 20 million cars cross the Golden Gate into San Francisco every year and at one time, more than 100 toll takers worked on the bridge, which opened in 1937 and charges only for southbound trips.

On Tuesday, the last day drivers could hand their money to a human, only nine remained.

Before the last toll booths were closed, 86 percent of morning commuters driving from Marin County into San Francisco already paid the toll electronically with prepaid FasTrak tags, transponders that discount the $6 toll to $5.

Drivers can set up accounts for single trips or can buy individual crossings at kiosks in Bay area gas stations and convenience stores. The bridge district will photograph the license plates of vehicles that pass through the toll plaza without accounts and the registered owners of those cars and trucks will each receive an invoice for the $6 toll.

Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and David Brunnstrom

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