By the time you read this, the last motorist should have rolled to a stop and handed over $6 at the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza.
The bridge toll isn't going away. But if everything went as planned overnight, the human toll collectors are gone after 76 years, replaced by FasTrak, cameras and other automated means of collecting tolls.
Traffic will move faster, bridge officials say, with less congestion at commute hour. And, the bottom line, the new system will save money.
We can't quibble with any of that, nor can we escape thinking that something valuable is disappearing along with those drive-by encounters with a friendly person at the toll plaza.
"I met people from all over the world," Jackie Dean, a toll-taker for 18 years, told the New York Times. "I kissed babies from different countries. I've taken pictures for people from all over the world. I've seen cars that aren't even out, the prototypes."
In our increasingly self-service society, where price scanners are supplanting supermarket checkers and parking garage attendants have given way to machines, this transition probably was inevitable. In large part, it's already occurred: Seventy percent of drivers use FasTrak on the Golden Gate Bridge, a figure that jumps to 86 percent during the morning commute hour.
The Golden Gate is the most prominent bridge to switch to a fully automated system of toll collection. But it certainly won't be the last. The agency that operates the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and six other state-owned spans in the greater Bay Area hasn't announced any changes, but officials are watching closely what happens at the Golden Gate.
Automation is projected to save $16 million to $19 million over the next eight years — not an insignificant sum considering a projected five-year deficit of $89 million for the Golden Gate Bridge District, which also operates buses and ferries.
As was evident Tuesday, with motorists giving hugs and leaving gifts, some people relished their brief, personal exchanges with the toll collectors, who always smiled and offered a friendly greeting.
But beginning today, the only reason to roll down your window as you cross the bridge is to enjoy the breeze. The toll collectors will be missed.
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