Published Sunday, May 1, 2005, in the Contra Costa Times
Working on Bay Area bridges takes its toll
By Mike Adamick
Cotnra Costa Times
Rain thrums on greasy asphalt. Cars and trucks rumble through toll
lanes on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, a circus of undulating
steel and concrete.
Reneesa Green strides into toll lane No. 7 and raises a hand. A
yellow dump truck wheezes to a stop.
"It's just us and our hands," the toll collector says. "We hope they
stop, but it's scary. You make eye contact and hope they see you,
but you never know what's going through people's minds."
A toll collector's shift is transitory, a medley of ephemeral
interactions with all humankind has to offer. Some people smile.
Others curse, depending on traffic conditions. Some burn coins with
cigarette lighters before handing them over. Others offer Christmas
In the wake of robberies on the Carquinez and Golden Gate bridges,
where a toll collector was shot April 9, the people inside the
yellow booths say the job has taken on a new level of stress. They
fear for their safety sometimes, especially late at night.
But safety isn't the only concern for the cadre of Bay Area toll
collectors on seven state-owned bridges. They are the front lines
for commuter frustration, the faces people have come to associate
And they've heard it all.
"For the most part, I'd say people are rude," Green says. "I'd guess
some people think they're better than you -- you've got a low-paying
job and they live in Marin County."
Short with a bright-orange vest over a blue shirt, Green starts the
evening shift by sliding into toll lane No. 7, one arm raised and
the other coddling a cash box.
The yellow dump truck idles in the lane, as collector Renato Rosete,
coming off the morning shift, gathers his cash box, opens the toll
booth door and lets Green push past him.
"Good luck," he says, slipping into a pedestrian tunnel leading to
the toll office. The yellow dump truck coughs through the lane.
For the next 6-1/2 hours -- toll collectors receive three, 30-minute
breaks -- Green takes cash, insults, smiles and barbs. About halfway
through her shift, a fight broke out, she says, in the FasTrak
electronic toll collection lane where a driver beat up another for
"That's the worst road rage I've seen," Green says.
The 37 toll collectors on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge take more
heat than most. A $1 billion seismic retrofit has snarled traffic,
as crews close decks and seal off lanes each night. As traffic backs
up, toll collectors brace for the onslaught.
"It's dangerous, because you're the target," says Mary Roja, a
veteran with nine years experience. "They're sitting in traffic and
they see you -- they'll call us every name in the book. It's always
Cursing is just the start. Drivers cough on dollar bills, blow their
noses in them, wipe their mouths with them. Drivers throw change.
Roja recalls times when drivers heated coins with cigarette lighters
before tossing them.
"You name it, you got it," Roja says.
The workers' break room has become the sanctuary. With a fuzzy TV,
a refrigerator and walls lined with safety notes, such as reminders
not to stand in FasTrak lanes where drivers don't have to stop, the
room is where they can relax. It's also where they share their
"Just have $3 ready -- how hard is it?" says Shinita Allen, a
collector for four years.
She can't recall how many times it's happened: Drivers idle in the
toll lane, digging for loose change to pay the $3 toll as cars begin
to queue up.
The stories work both ways. Some drivers say toll collectors are
slow or distracted by radios and idle chatter with co-workers.
"We hear that all the time -- we're too slow or lazy," Roja said
Why, then, would toll collectors remain on the job with all these
"We got bills to pay like everyone else," Green says.
Collectors say the pay is fine, ranging from $13 to $19 an hour with
state benefits. Some say they took the job as a way into the state
system and retirement packages, though they hope to climb the work
force ladder to less stressful positions.
And work is not all bad. Drivers give them presents sometimes.
Christmas can be a bountiful time. It depends on the bridge and
Just as collectors on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge have come to
embody gridlock, collectors on the Golden Gate Bridge to the south
have come to embody faster commutes, a beautiful span and the
wonders of tourism.
After FasTrak was installed in 2000, sluggish commutes largely
disappeared and toll collectors have been rewarded. No more tossed
coins, curses and bubble gum-laced dollar bills.
"Any aggression toward the collectors with regard to backups is
virtually gone," says Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the world famous
art deco span that links San Francisco to Marin.
Many receive gifts, friendly smiles and nods, Currie says. One time
a bread truck offered its goods, she says.
The dawn of FasTrak threatened some of that atmosphere. Commuters
had no more need to stop, roll down windows and exchange
"We had people say they were going to miss seeing their favorite
collector," Currie says.
That does not discount the dangers on the bridge -- even with
bolstered security in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,
2001. At least five agencies are ready to respond to emergencies.
Still, a man shot a toll collector on a Saturday night earlier in
April, before a riot of police officers responded, found the suspect
and shot back.
"It's not a good idea to mess with the Golden Gate Bridge," Currie
says. "It was like a clockwork response."
Unlike the seven state-owned Bay Area bridges, the Golden Gate
Bridge is run by its own district. Tolls are higher -- $5 -- and the
32 full-time toll collectors are paid more, about $23 an hour on
"I think the mood in the lanes has begun to relax and get back to
its friendly atmosphere," Currie says.
Toll collectors on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge cannot wait for
the retrofit work to end next year. Maybe the traffic congestion
will ease and drivers will cut them some slack. Maybe the atmosphere
will improve a little, they wonder.
Bob Haus, a Caltrans spokesman, is the public liaison for bridge
information. Drivers are supposed to call him for construction
Toll collectors hand out pamphlets with his phone number when asked.
But they know it won't do much good. They still get yelled at or
threatened. Sometimes, happily, they'll get a smile.
"I tell them they are public information officers whether they like
it or not," Haus said.
Mike Adamick covers transportation. Reach him at 925-945-4745 or at