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Bay Area bridge toll-taker puff piece

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  • 5/1 Contra Costa Times
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2005
      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
      presents.

      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
      with gridlock.

      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
      honking.

      "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
      our fault."

      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
      frustrations.

      "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
      frustrations?

      "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
      the mood.

      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
      pleasantries.

      "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
      average.

      "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
      updates.

      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
      madamick@....
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