Toll collector Gwen Barber heard a frequent question Thursday morning as drivers handed over their cash and debit cards: How much more will it cost to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge?
The state will raise tolls Sunday, the first increase in four years.
Barber, 39, also is girding for the hike. With the increase, it will cost her more money each month in tolls to get to work than to insure her car, she said (toll collectors don’t receive a discount). The Spanaway resident said she plans to park her car and walk across the bridge a couple of days a week to save money.
“I can relate totally to these people paying the toll because I’m one of them,” she said.
While the toll hike is certain, the future for Barber and the 13 other collectors at the bridge is less clear.
State transportation officials will make a recommendation to lawmakers early next year on whether to shutter the bridge’s six tollbooths and move solely to electronic tolling.
Computers already collect the majority of tolls on the bridge through the state’s Good to Go! program. In December, the state offered a third way to pay tolls by taking pictures of a vehicle’s license plate and mailing its registered owner a bill. That month, the state began tolling the state Route 520 floating bridge without booths.
The state wants to determine whether it costs more to contract with toll collectors or hire a company to run equipment that does the same work.
Keeping the cost of operating the bridge as low as possible is paramount both for state officials and toll payers. The state is repaying the money it borrowed to build the bridge with tolls, and those payments increase significantly in the coming years.
The state counted on gradual increases in tolls and traffic to make those payments. Money used to pay operating expenses isn’t going toward paying down the debt, and with traffic counts below projections, that adds pressure to raise tolls.
State tolling director Craig Stone said officials need time and data to estimate whether drivers would move to Good to Go! or pay-by-mail if booths weren’t available, and how much money the state would receive after paying costs for all-electronic collection. That will shape their recommendation to lawmakers next year.
The state has extended its contract with TransCore to operate the booths. That contract is set to expire in June 2014. The state will pay the company $2.3 million a year to operate the booths.
State Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said residents didn’t want to be the “guinea pig for cashless tolling” and wanted the state to work out the kinks on 520 before considering bringing such a system to Pierce County.
Kilmer said he’s open to removing the booths if it makes the bridge less expensive to operate and protects residents from toll increases that are ahead of schedule. The financing plan to construct the bridge calls for tolls to increase one final time, to an average of $6, in 2016.
“The jury is out until we see the analysis to determine whether it serves our interests or not,” Kilmer said.
Back in her booth, which she has dubbed her “second home,” Barber said she understands that her days collecting cash may be numbered.
“We’ll be out of a job,” she said. “That’s a concern.”
Barber began working for TransCore in October 2007, three months after the bridge opened. The job sounded fun, she said, and she had tired of serving food in restaurants. Barber wakes at 2:30 a.m. weekdays to start her shift two hours later.
Wearing a reflective vest, gloves and a smile, Barber is in constant motion. With each transaction, she mentally counts the number of axles on a vehicle to calculate the toll, offers a cheery “hello,” accepts the cash or debit card, enters the toll in the computer, returns any change, the card and a receipt, if desired, and bids a cheery farewell.
She estimates her average transaction takes five seconds. Questions extend that time, and lately she has been responding to many inquires about the new toll rate. People, she said, are generally accepting.
Then the next vehicle arrives. And the next, followed by the next. A toll collector will move through 250 cars an hour, on average.
“The toughest job is out there,” Bob Wheeler, TransCore’s head tolls supervisor, said about working in a booth. “Hour after hour, you’re dealing with a car.”
Computers check up on the collectors’ work. For each transaction, the system automatically calculates the correct toll. At the end of each shift, it’s determined whether the toll collector received too much money or too little.
For every $100 the team of toll collectors has handled since the beginning of the year, it has been off by one penny, exceeding the standard set by state transportation officials, Wheeler said.
Barber said the people she meets keep the job interesting, and she has over time built relationships through what could be considered the Twitter of business transactions. Half her customers at the start of her shift are regulars who prefer to pay the higher toll. They want to avoid paper statements, protest the Big Brother nature of electronic tolling or – and this is her favorite – start their day with her smile, she said.
“We have to keep the conversation short because there’s always another car behind them,” she said.
Toll collectors have received letters and gifts cards as tokens of appreciation, said Jennifer Carlton, a tolling supervisor for TransCore. One regular customer hands out a doughnut, and a fisherman even handed over a salmon after a fishing trip. She recalled a woman was in labor headed to the hospital and panicked because she didn’t have money to pay the toll. The toll collector attempted to calm the woman by saying she could get the toll in the mail. She headed to the hospital only to return later to introduce the toll collector to her new baby.
Wheeler recognizes that computers are taking over tolling but holds out hope that the booths can remain, even if they’re in a reduced role.
“I think if, in fact, it goes away, it will be missed big-time,” he said.
Kilmer isn’t so sure. Most of the people he talks to are “agnostic about how their toll get collected. They just want it to be lower.”