WPC: Around Midnight

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Three years ago tomorrow marks the anniversary of the start of the All Electronic Tolling program at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA. At Midnight on March 27, 2013 forty co-workers—friends of mine—lost their jobs and were replaced by machines that were installed and maintained by the employees in the Electric Shop, which is where I worked.

It was difficult to watch what happened to them, but I stayed on after my 3—11PM shift to do just that. I felt like I owed it to them out of respect for their contribution to the District for so many years. I was a witness to history, along with the other employees on duty that night: Streets and Grounds personnel, an Ironworker, and the regular Graveyard shift workers in Bridge Service, Bridge Security, and the lone electrician in the Electric Shop. Everyone was there to ease the transition to an automated collection system, and say goodbye to friends who were no longer a part of a World class workplace.

I had just finished working a Graveyard shift with these same folks five days before. Swing shift on the 26th was my first day back and their last day ever. We jokingly referred to the Golden Gate Bridge as, “The second happiest place on Earth”—Disneyland has a permanent lock as #1. My mind changed in the months, days, hours, and especially the minutes leading up to the stroke of Midnight on that fateful day.

The Plaza was swarming with the members of the News Media. The Golden Gate Bridge was leading the way with another first for the State of California, a 100% automated toll collection system. It had been just 13 years since the GGB made history as the first bridge to install an Electronic Toll System in the state of California. The state bridges followed suite within a few years.

That night in March of 2013 was weird for me. There were celebrations galore for the new system, but subdued emotions for the Bridge Officers—that’s the official title for the people known as Toll Collectors.

“Money, get away
Get a good job with more pay and you’re O.K.
Money, it’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash…”
Money, 1973,
lyrics by Roger Waters,

The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd

I thought back to 1999 when I went to work there. The toll was $3.00 for an automobile, cash on the line. There was a Pawn Shop of sorts in the back of the Bridge Security office. Patrons who couldn’t pay the toll left something of value and got a ticket stub to retrieve their item when they came back with the money. Sounds crazy, right?

From time to time I worked down in the “Vault” replacing burnt out lamps or installing new equipment. The Vault was where the money was collected and counted, and there was a lot of money—and security cameras. The people who worked in the Vault wore special zippered overalls that had no pockets. There was a locker room where they could change clothes at the beginning and end of their shift.

The first time that I went down to the Vault to replace some fluorescent lamps I thought that I was in the movie, Scarface. There were eight to ten 35-gallon trash cans full of green leaves—wait a minute—they were full of Federal Reserve Notes of every conceivable denomination. Piles of greenbacks were on sorting tables and canvas bags of change were piled on a flat cart for transportation to sorting machines.

Do you remember Y2K and all the hype surrounding it? I finished a Graveyard shift on Thursday, December 30th and the new electronic toll system went live officially at the stroke of Midnight on New Year’s Day 2000. I was sleeping snug in my bed and missed the whole affair, but I knew that I had stumbled into something that was going to be a landmark event in the future.

I was on duty for a Graveyard shift months later when the very first lane opened as an automated lane for the morning commute. It was Lane #11, the Eastern-most lane, and it took about 10 minutes before the first patron drove through it. He was a violator.

Of course, there were violators before the automated lanes were put in. The most memorable one for me was a guy I called “Charlie Midnight”. My first encounter with him was just after 12 AM on my first Graveyard shift when I was on my way out to replace some printer paper in Lane 2. I was just stepping up onto the island between Lanes 1 & 2 when I heard the sound of a car engine revving at high speed and approaching my position from the direction of the bridge.

As the sound got closer the collector in Lane 2 yelled, “Stay there, and don’t move!” A few seconds later an old beat up Toyota Corolla, lights out and without license plates, blasted past in front me in Lane 2. I gathered my composure and asked the collector if that happened often. Turns out that it did. I don’t know whatever happened to Charlie, but I didn’t see him anymore after the Y2K toll system upgrade.

The Toll Collectors saved my butt on more than one occasion and turned out to be a wonderful source of information about problems in the lanes and with the equipment, often times before situations developed into big problems. I spent more time with them than the people in my own shop because of the rotating shift schedule that I worked.

The following photos are from three years ago, on the last shift that my friends worked. They were professional to the end and an inspiration to this day.

It was an honor and a pleasure to work with you over the years.



Here is a look back at some of my former co-workers.

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  7 comments for “WPC: Around Midnight

  1. March 26, 2016 at 7:50 AM

    Allan, a lovely tribute to colleagues and friends…


  2. March 25, 2016 at 6:45 PM

    Thanks for a detailed clear picture of the human face of job loss to technology.
    Along with song and images.


    • March 26, 2016 at 6:46 AM

      You are welcome, Carol. It is a sad fact of life these days.


  3. Pan
    March 25, 2016 at 6:27 PM

    I “liked” the post because you related the story so it could be felt by the reader..

    I’m sad when jobs are replaced by automation.. The toll transponder does help me get more miles per week in.. But I wouldn’t care about losing those miles if it meant people could’ve kept their jobs.. I’m obviously in the minority about it because electronic tolling has spread to every major bridge and toll road..


    • March 26, 2016 at 6:45 AM

      Thanks for your kind words, Pan. The cost of the automation equipment and the staffing requirements to support it doesn’t seem like it offsets the cost of the people who are replaced. We are what you might call the “minority opinion”.

      Buckle up, it’s the 21st Century.


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