Tales of Toll Booth Trauma: Relics of a an Era at its End?

04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Several years ago, I called the complaint line of AC transit, the regional bus agency that operates in the Oakland area. After a one-sided conversation about bus drivers yelling threats and making obscene gestures at innocent cyclists, I asked what happened with complaints--how they were compiled, processed, etc. The result was a long, long hold. I actually sent a formal letter requesting copies of recent complaints, citing the California Public Records Act--one of the best pieces of legislation ever to come out of Sacramento. I never received a response, but I cooled off and forgot about the whole thing until this week. Probably the desired outcome.

While I still have no idea what happens with complaints about East Bay buses, we can now all appreciate the conscientious note taking and record keeping of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority customer relations staff. A spectacular collection of well-documented, often lurid and sensational complaints about rude, abusive, even criminal toll takers was posted on The Smoking Gun. A freedom of information act request produced more than 550 recorded complaints--just from the past year and a half. For a little risk-free transportation voyeurism, this collection is truly hard to beat, and runs the gamut from obscenity to nudity to theft to racial slurs to some pretty alarming threats of violence (a la "I know where you live"). No need to crane one's neck or hold up traffic to observe some high drama conflict.

Whether outraged or titillated, readers should not expect incidents like these to continue. Electronic tolling mechanisms are vastly cheaper and faster than human beings, and their universal adoption may be inevitable. While change is often difficult to implement in bureaucratic behemoth like the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and the power of the toll takers is certainly indicated in their apparent immunity from disciplinary action, eventually even the most intractable agencies will succumb. I imagine that the release of these documents will give any efforts there to phase out live toll takers a real boost.

In the meanwhile, these complaints play into longstanding stereotypes and raise questions of regional culture, much to the chagrin of New Jersey officials. Images of New Jersey union members are already difficult to sidestep in popular culture, and these pages certainly suggest a that a collection of thuggish bullies populate the state's toll booths. Frankly, angry bus drivers notwithstanding, it's difficult to imagine this sort of behavior by California bridge toll takers, who seem uniformly pleasant if often bored (and also facing obsolescence). To be fair, I am sure that the comportment of the vast majority of their New Jersey compatriots is similar--and that these complaints result from the occasional digressions of just a few (rather spectacular) outliers. Of course, we need more data for a fair comparison--and I am sending letters to the Bay Area Toll Authority and the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District today. Maybe all this indicates is good New Jersey record keeping and legal compliance.