Golden Gate Bridge workers are making last-minute adjustments in preparation for conversion to all-electronic tolling in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Crews were scheduled Monday to use a crane to hoist an electronic sign atop the toll plaza. On Wednesday, the 27-foot long LED sign will display a direct message to drivers: "Do Not Stop -- Automatic Tolling."
"It's historic," said Kary Witt, bridge manager at the span. "For me it's bittersweet. I love the technology and it's exciting to be on the cutting edge, but for 75 years our toll-takers have been recognized as the best in the business. We have gotten a lot of recognition for that and I am proud of that. There is a certain sorrow on my part to see them go."
But that's what will happen during the early morning hours on Wednesday when the toll-takers will remove their cash boxes and walk from their bridge booths for the final time.
"We are a few days away from one of the most visible changes, if not the most visible change ever for the traveling public on the Golden Gate Bridge," said Mary Currie, bridge district spokeswoman. "By Wednesday the collectors will be out of the lanes and we will have made the switch."
Much of the prep work has been finished; testing of the new system started in January and has gone smoothly. For now, the toll booth structures will remain in place, in large part because they house the equipment, including cameras, that will allow the bridge to convert to all-electronic tolls.
Before Wednesday, signs instructing drivers that the cash toll is $6 will be stripped away, speed-limit signs at the toll plaza will change from 5 mph to 25 mph, and toll booth windows will be painted with international orange to deter drivers from stopping and looking for a toll taker. Lane No. 2 at the toll plaza will be converted to a $3 toll carpool lane. Carpool hours are from 5 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays, with three people needed to qualify.
During the first days of all-electronic tolls, the bridge district will have employees available to stand near toll booths to wave traffic through. "The expectation is that the morning commute will be like it is now and flow smoothly because 86 percent of these drivers already use FasTrak," Currie said. "But midday, when more people use cash, that's when we might have some challenges."
The toll-takers have been part of bridge operations since the span opened in 1937, but financial pressures and technology have conspired to eliminate the positions.
Eliminating toll-takers will save roughly $16 million over eight years in salaries and benefits. A toll-taker's base annual salary starts at $48,672 and tops out at $54,080. It is costing the bridge district $3.2 million to get the all-electronic system up and running.
The move, among other steps, will help bail the district out of a $66 million budget shortfall over the next five years.
"We have been here through rain, sleet, snow and hail," said toll-taker Jacquie Dean, who has heard condolences from her customers. "They thought the board of directors would come to their sense and reverse this. For it to end this way is emotional for all of us."
The district has established a website -- www.goldengate.org/tolls -- to provide information to drivers.
Contact Mark Prado via email at email@example.com ___