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SAN FRANCISCO - Dawnette Reed first met the boy when he was several months old and still sucking on a pacifier.

She watched him go from wearing onesies to school uniforms and from being strapped in a car seat to being belted in.

"You're gonna be mayor or president someday," Reed would say to him.

That connection is lost now. Tuesday was Reed's last as a toll taker on the Golden Gate Bridge, which around midnight was planning to become the first major span in the nation to convert to electronic toll taking.

The hard reality of the change was evident on Reed's face as a familiar white SUV approached her toll booth around 7:45 a.m. Tuesday.

When the vehicle stopped, Tyler Hill, now 12, stood up through the open sunroof holding a sign that read, "We will miss you." His mother, Sharon, handed Reed a bouquet of flowers.

"It's going to be hard," Reed, a resident of Oakland, predicted Monday, prior to her last shift.

Bridge officials say electronic tolling, which has been planned for two years, is necessary to reduce costs.

The new system is costing $3.4 million to implement, including $520,000 to publicize the changes. It is projected to save the district $16.8 million over an eight-year period.

Officials tout the conversion as a convenience for motorists who no longer will have to stop to pay toll. Such payments will be made using FasTrak, license-plate accounts, direct billing or through kiosks and cashiers at locations along thoroughfares leading to the bridge.

But there's no evading the human toll of the changeover, which includes the elimination of 28 full-time toll-collector jobs.

"I'm one of those who lament the end of the human touch," said Kary Witt, manager of the bridge for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

Witt, who lives in Windsor, called the change "inevitable," saying people will embrace the automatic toll system the same way they rely on ATMs to get money or the Internet to purchase airline tickets.

Already, about 70 percent of Golden Gate users are FasTrak account holders.

"It's the logical end-point," Witt said.

Others heavily criticize the move, arguing that toll collectors are as integral to the bridge's iconic stature as the span's distinctive color. Remove them, and the color fades.

Toll collectors worked on the Golden Gate around-the-clock for 76 years, and in that time, they earned reputations as more than mere cash handlers.

Reed said she interrupted one woman who had parked her car on the bridge and was preparing to jump from the span. More often, she helped motorists with directions and answered their questions.

She predicted automatic tolling will not work as well as intended. "There's going to be accidents. There are so many tourists who don't read the paper and don't know what's going on," she said.

She said the bridge district could have found ways to save money other than by laying off all the toll takers.

"We see new equipment. We see new cars. Every time they (the bridge's Board of Directors) have a meeting they're snacking on something. Why can't they buy their own lunch?" she said.

The toll takers are represented by the Transport Workers Union of America.

Jacquie Dean, a toll taker for 18 years and a former shop steward for the union, blamed the labor organization for not being more aggressive as it became apparent bridge officials were planning to convert to automatic taking. She said the union "failed us at the end."

She and Reed were paid the top-scale wage of $27.53 an hour. They were two of nine full-time toll collectors who have not been placed in other positions in the district or chosen to retire.

Dean, 43, said she tried out as a bus driver but couldn't remember the routes. Reed has applied to be a station agent with Bay Area Rapid Transit.

The pair was offered severance equal to 15 weeks of pay. They also can continue to receive health care benefits for up to six months through COBRA, according to Eric Williams, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 250-A.

Reed said she considers herself fortunate because she doesn't have a spouse or children who rely on her to support them financially.

Reed took a summer job in the gift shop at the bridge when she was 16. After a stint in the Army Reserves, she got the job as a toll collector when she was 26. She is now 43. "I wanted it to be my last job," she said.

So, too, did the Hill family of San Rafael -- Max, Sharon and Tyler. Almost every weekday for years, the family rolled through Reed's toll booth on their way to work, or in Tyler's case, to school.

Max Hill recalled when his son handed Reed his pacifier for her to keep. "It was just a special connection," he said.

The new toll system in theory will speed up the family's morning commute. But that's not cause for joy.

"For whatever it speeds up time-wise, it costs a lot of people jobs," Max Hill said. "It's upsetting to us because we built relationships with these people."

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Reed collected her cash tray and left the toll booth for the last time, careful to avoid traffic as she walked toward the administration building, where reporters waited to interview her.

She began to cry. Later, she walked alone to her car carrying a box filled with several bouquets of flowers that were handed to her as parting gifts.

"I had the best view in the world," she said earlier of working on the Golden Gate. "You see the fog, and then all of a sudden, it's gone."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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