SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — When their final shifts ended Tuesday at the Golden Gate Bridge, several toll collectors forced their mouths into smiles, hugged each other tightly, and cried as they left their small booths for the last time.
On Wednesday, bridge managers planned to replace the humans with technology to save money and speed traffic across the historic span that opened in 1937.
"Our DNA is embedded in this bridge ... we are part of it," said Jacquie Dean, a career toll collector who had worked on the burnt orange span for 18 years before her last shift.
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The new system allows drivers to pay using digital transponders that deduct money from a prepaid account or credit card, or through license plate scans that generate bills sent to drivers. Under both methods, cash will no longer be an option.
"Some customers still want to pay cash," Dean lamented. "They don't want to be tracked and photographed."
Many drivers have already switched to the FasTrak devices that attach to windshields and have been allowing motorists to speed by the toll booths for a dollar less than people who pay cash.
Those who fail to pay will receive warnings and could eventually have a hold placed on their vehicle registration at the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Currie offered one overarching message for drivers using the bridge on Wednesday.
"Just don't stop," she said.
The switchover is expected to save about $16 million in salaries and benefits over eight years.
"It was a difficult decision and involved the loss of some very dedicated staff," said Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
Nine toll takers will lose their jobs. Another 17 have been placed in other district positions or retired, Currie said.
Dean and others said they loved working on the bridge for many reasons — seeing the same customers every day, helping tourists with directions, and the beautiful surroundings. They often received gift cards and small presents during the holidays from customers.
"I never thought that I would ever end my career at the bridge," said Dawnette Reed, who started working in the gift shop at age 16 and became a toll collector at 26 after a stint in the U.S. Army.
"The bridge won't be the same without us," Reed said.