Gerry Flint has collected tolls for 40 years on a 570-mile highway that crosses New York state.
But he does more than just count money and make change. He gives directions to lost drivers, offers hotel and restaurant tips and keeps watch for vehicles wanted by the state police. Regular commuters know him by name.
Soon he will lose his job, yet another casualty of advancing technology.
Flint will be replaced next year by a cashless tolling system that automatically charges vehicles equipped with an E-ZPass reader or snaps a license-plate photo to bill by mail.
The technology has meant the end of a way of life for more than 1,200 toll workers along the length of the New York State Thruway.
“As long as there have been toll roads, there have been toll collectors,” Flint, 60, said. “It’s a shame that the job is going away.”
Toll collectors were once the sentries of the country’s roads, but they are rapidly disappearing as New York and other states embrace technology that makes tollbooths obsolete. Nearly half of the nation’s 336 tolled highways, bridges and tunnels have only cashless tolling, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, an industry group.
State officials and transportation experts say cashless tolling is more convenient for drivers, reduces traffic and pollution from idling vehicles, and improves safety because there is no need to slow or jockey across lanes to pay at a tollbooth.
It has also allowed highways to better manage traffic flow by using variable toll pricing that can change by the minute to charge higher rates for traveling at peak times.
New York City will rely on cashless tolling to help fine-tune its traffic management when it becomes the first U.S. city to use congestion pricing to charge drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan.
“There are a lot of good reasons to go to cashless tolling,” said Pat Jones, executive director of the bridge, tunnel and turnpike association.
But the technology has drawn criticism over privacy concerns that cashless tolling is another way to track people. Drivers have also complained about being charged in error, or being billed thousands of dollars in late fees and penalties that far exceed the actual tolls. In April, three drivers in Western New York sued the Thruway Authority over billing issues after the Grand Island bridges switched to cashless tolling.
It has also increasingly displaced toll collectors, the largely unsung contributors to the transportation network. They squeeze into tight spaces, endure exhaust fumes and constant honking and, sometimes, fend off unwanted advances from drivers. Some even keep their own money handy to bail out drivers who don’t have enough.
“Toll collectors need their jobs,” said Linda Henderson, 62, a toll collector on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey since 2002. “And people are happy to see us out there. They need us.”
Thousands of toll collectors used to work across the New York region in the 1990s, but their ranks have shrunk over the years as E-ZPass lanes have proliferated.
Still, unlike store cashiers and other private-sector workers who have lost jobs to automation, many toll collectors are represented by labor unions that have often helped them move to other positions in the same agency.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the move to systemwide cashless tolling on the state Thruway 19 months ago. By then, the number of full-time toll collectors had already shrunk to 170 from 789 at the peak in 1991, two years before E-ZPass was introduced in the state. There were also 1,153 part-time collectors.
The youngest toll collector is 18 years old, and the oldest is 82, according to the Thruway Authority. Just over half are women. The salaries range from $13.63 an hour for a part-time toll collector to $24.35 an hour for senior, full-time employees.
Jeanne Marie Litts, 56, who manages toll plazas in the Hudson Valley, said she delayed her own retirement to help toll workers through the transition.
Litts, who followed her mother into toll collecting in 1984, recalled that before electronic tolling, the lines to pay cash tolls at the old Tappan Zee Bridge — replaced today by the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge — used to back up for miles.
“That’s how bad that was before E-ZPass,” she said. “I think technology is the right thing to do here.”