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Ostriches and other memories from 18 years on the Golden Gate Bridge

Last week, the Golden Gate Bridge switched to its new all-electronic tolling system. The change has been smooth, with just a few reports of confused drivers stopping at the toll plaza. For most people, it won’t be a big deal. Over three-quarters of commuters use Fastrak.

“I don’t think it’s going to affect me, because I already have a Fastrak,” says John Stevick, who uses the Golden Gate on his commute. “But I feel that maybe the traffic will be even less.”

The bridge has come up with ways for everyone to easily pay, from cash-only folks to tourists in rental cars. You can get up an account with your credit card tied to your license, you can pay in person at a bunch of different locations, and rental companies will cover your toll for a daily fee. The toll is still six dollars, but Fastrak users get the bonus of a dollar off at all times and the ability to use the carpool lane during commute hours for further reduced rate. People may not like the change, but everyone will pay and the bridge will continue to make – and even save – money.

Mary Currie is the spokesperson for the Golden Gate Transit District, which runs the bridge. She says keeping the bridge ahead of the curve on new technologies was a big factor, but the budget shortfall was also part of the motivation to try the new system.

“We expect to see about a $16 million savings over the coming eight years after we implement the system, the system costs 3.2 million dollars to implement,” she explains.

Currie stressed the switch is good for drivers.

“We're really offering more customer choices in that you'll be able to go to a cash payment location, you can pay online, you can pay over the phone, it really opens up a myriad of ways people can pay their toll,” she says.

Currie says the change is sweet and sour. It’s great that the bridge is saving money and offering more choices, but it’s hard losing the face of the bridge. Unfortunately, she explains, jobs are usually the first to go when a transit agency has to cut costs.

“Every government agency is faced with having to downsize, and as service providers in the transit world labor is our biggest expense,” says Currie. “So that is directly relates to the all-electronic tolling project. It’s labor.”

In other words, it’s the toll collectors. Officially called “bridge officers,” they’ve been taking drivers’ money since the bridge opened in 1937. On March 26, 2013, all 28 of them clocked in for the last time.

Jacquie Dean was one of those bridge officers, and she said goodbye to a career that spanned 18 years on the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I don't think any day on the bridge is typical, its always something new,” says Dean. “You meet new people from different countries around the world, new kids, dogs, dogs and kids are my favorite there.”

Dean says she has had a lot of regular customers – some who know her schedule better than she does. And the bridge officers have their favorites, too.

“Like Joyce, who makes the best brownies in the world,” Dean gushes. “She brings brownies whenever she comes across and whoever gets them is considered the winner for the day. And she is just the nicest lady, she's been there since I started there, giving us little packets of brownies that she makes by hand.”

Dean says her favorite part of the job is all the different people that she got to meet. She’s even seen kids grow up.

“You watch them, you know, first day of kindergarten. They bring you little pictures that they've drawn, graduations from fifth and sixth grade, going in junior high, going into high school, I’ve even seen some that have gone on to college, and they come and they remember you. … There's a little boy who gave me a little red matchbox car, I still have that car 15 years later, I’m waiting for him to come back and get it from me,” Dean recalls.

For Dean, every day was an adventure.

“One year I had someone come through and they had taken a flatbed truck, added sand, put a beach chair, and was in the back, and had a little margarita with a little umbrella in it, enjoying the sun, you know,” remembers Dean.

There were also a lot of animal mishaps on the bridge.

“One time there were ostriches that got loose,” Dean recalls. “I don't know if you know that ostriches are quite fast and quite strong, and our toll men had to go out there and try to wrangle ostriches on the Golden Gate Bridge and it did stop traffic for about 30 minutes.”

But her craziest story is about a person – a very small person.

“A friend of mine who used to be a bridge officer, she helped deliver a baby,” says Dean. “And actually on his birth certificate, it says he was born on the Golden Gate Bridge, and there's only two people in the world who were born on the Golden Gate Bridge, and my friend Karen actually helped deliver that little boy.”

But now, Dean won’t have any more stories to add. She says she first started hearing about all-electronic tolling back in 2000. It was scary, but it still seemed far off.

“Then you started to notice they were putting in different computers and screens and slowly started cutting down the lanes,” she says. “We used to open with 11 lanes and the relief people, and then they cut the relief positions and they started cutting down the lanes slowly and it become more and more of a reality.”

Dean says the bridge officers felt betrayed by the Board of Directors.

“They are the people that were voted in to care for and be the guardians of the bridge,” she says. “And we feel they betrayed us for what they've done. It's not right.” Laughing, Dean says she needs a therapist. “I don't know how I’m getting through this.”

Dean says she saw a long-time customer going through her toll lane in the last few days before the switch. They took one look at each other and started bawling.

“Then you know she leaves, and the next car is coming and the husband’s looking at me like I’m crazy,” she says. “But the wife realizes what's happening and she starts crying. And he's looking at me looking at his wife crying, and he starts tearing up, he's like oh my god, I can't deal this, I can’t deal with two women crying, one on each side of me. But they understood, and I didn't have to verbalize anything.”

Dean says she has made some of the best friends in her life working on the Golden Gate Bridge. A big part of that, she says, was because they helped her in times of need.

“The month I started, my grandfather passed,” she remembers. “And I remember I asked the office I needed that Saturday off to go to his funeral, they told me no.”

But another bridge officer took it upon herself to give up her coveted Saturday so that Dean could attend her grandfather’s funeral – something that Dean has always been grateful for.

“Everybody there has gone with me through my own personal losses, grandparents, my mother and my father quite close, and a sister,” she says. “Every year I lost somebody close to me. And [my co-workers] were there for me.”

Dean says her job became her “normal.”

“It's what I was able to come back to that was stable in my life,” she says. “Just the fact that we're all going through the same thing, losing families, creating new families. They were there for me. So I’m going to miss them.”

She’s also going to miss the kids she sees every day, and the dogs. “And the sunrises and the sunsets,” she says. “The best in the world. The sky is perfectly blue, and the bridge, it has an inner glow. There’s no other word to say but awesome, it's totally awesome, that view at sunset is like no other in the world.”

Of the 28 full-time bridge officers, all but eight had arranged to retire or had found a new job in the district. Jacquie Dean is one of the eight. She’s still looking for a new job.

Crosscurrents Transportation