Oakland at work: A day in the life of a Bay Bridge toll collector

Willie Gutierrez, 48, has been working as a toll collector on the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge for 30 years.

Willie Gutierrez, 48, has been working as a toll collector on the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge for 30 years.

By 3 am, Willie Gutierrez is wide awake. He shuts off his alarm, rolls out of bed and heads for the shower. Thirty minutes later—after peeking in on his still sleeping 12-year-old son—he piles into his blue Toyota Camry and makes the half-hour drive from his home in Concord to the Bay Bridge where he’s been working for over 29 years.

“I started when I was 18,” Gutierrez, now 48, says. “I thought I would only be here 6 months, maybe a year.” This October will be Gutierrez’ 30th year working as a toll collector on the Bay Bridge. He’s one of the bridge’s 115 collectors who straddle the city lines between Oakland and San Francisco to take cash payment for a cost commuters dread: the toll.

For Gutierrez, weekdays start the same. At work by 4 am, Gutierrez punches in and heads to his locker. He reaches for his uniform: black slacks, a navy blue hat, a bright yellow reflective vest, and a light blue collared shirt with a badge on the sleeves that says he’s an employee of the state of California. He grabs a coin bag, a currency bag, and his black AM/FM radio, which he uses to listen to Journey, Motown or the news. By 4:30 am, he’s at work in one of the seventeen yellow boxed tollbooths on the cement island overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

In well under sixty seconds—more often ten to fifteen if the driver is prepared with the toll—Gutierrez works his magic.

As a vehicle pulls up, Gutierrez identifies its number of axels, the metal bars between two wheels that ensures that they rotate simultaneously. The number of axels increases along with the vehicle’s load carrying capability, which means a bump in the toll price. That could mean anywhere from $4 to $21 for two- to seven-axel vehicles. Since Gutierrez works in the middle commuter lanes and not the far right truck lanes—which carry heavier loads and where the vehicles have a higher number of axels—he mostly sees regular cars that just need to pay the $4 to $6 fee.

Gutierrez registers this number into a monitor, puts the money into a metal cashier’s tray, calculates the change in his head and hands the money to the driver, all while exchanging pleasantries with him or her about the weather, the woes of the long work day ahead or while giving directions. “I give a lot of directions,” he says. His fu manchu mustache rises at the corners of his mouth as he smiles broadly.

Gutierrez pauses. He can’t really say if there’s a technique he’s developed over the years to keep traffic moving smoothly. “It just comes naturally, you know what I mean?” he says. “I’m sure there are some collectors that have a special method.”

Gutierrez does have a special method, though: He likes to go fast.

Some collectors like to make a “set-up” by having sets of $5 and $1 bills ready to go, but Gutierrez is more comfortable counting it out. He rapidly peels the bills back one by one. It doesn’t slow him down, though. According to official CalTrans stats, he and his fellow collectors see at least an average of 2,014 cars per hour during the morning shift hours alone. “I tell my friends I’ve been through a million dollars,” he jokes.

Gutierrez is fast. But he’s not a machine.

Just a few lanes down from the small toll booth where Gutierrez works, there are several automated FasTrak  booths which, all together, see an average of 3,446 vehicles per hour between 4 am to 12:30 pm—Gutierrez’ regular shift hours. At these booths, the drivers don’t have to stop to scrounge up change or share their thoughts on the weather or how they feel about the last Giants or A’s game.

Gutierrez and other collectors sometimes worry that the FasTrak lanes could replace tollbooth operators altogether. Gutierrez says it’s a question that has been coming up repeatedly at union meetings over the last three months. “The union claims that if it does come to that, they’ll help us get to another job site,” Gutierrez says. But CalTrans officials say—and Gutierrez agrees—that it is just a rumor. No official proposal has been laid out or discussed. 

By 8:30 am, Guiterrez is in the heart of his shift, rapidly receiving money and making change as he chats with commuters on their way to work.  The booths are just as small inside as they seem from the outside. About three feet wide and six feet long, they don’t leave much space to move around, Gutierrez says. He chooses to alternate between standing and sitting on a small stool. In the winter, he keeps warm with the help of a portable heater and the booth’s built-in wall heater. On warm days, well, he just deals with it. “If it’s backed up, [especially] on a warm day, it really does get warm in there,” he says. “You kind of get used to it.”

Gutierrez has gotten used to all kinds of things in the three decades he’s been watching traffic flow past. One is the noise. Gutierrez has learned to drown out the sound of engines slowing down and revving up, honking horns, and blaring music, all of which amass into a constant ssssssshhhhhhhhhhh much like the white noise from an analog television screen. “But maybe my ears are going bad,” he jokes.

Then there are the smells. They waft out of cars and into Gutierrez’s nostrils as drivers roll down their windows to hand him money. Pot. Stale cigarettes. Freshly-lit cigars. Rotting sandwiches forgotten somewhere in the backseat.

Throughout the morning, his booth is inundated with a sea of traffic. He says he sees the Bay Bridge approach as a “big ol’ parking lot, especially in the morning when it’s backed up.” It’s during that time that toll collectors like Gutierrez see it all: suited up businessman talking animatedly to clients over their Bluetooth headphones, mothers trying to calm a screaming toddler in the back seat, a twenty-something smoking pot as he digs around for change, a sixty-something smoking pot as he digs around for change, couples arguing, couples making up, a group of teens packed into a hatchback on their way to a road trip.

There was a couple arguing over who would pay for the toll—going back and forth, back and forth,” Gutierrez recalls. At one point the woman opened her purse. “I thought she was going to get money for toll, and she ended up taking out a knife and stabbing the guy in the stomach.” The guy just went into shock and drove off, says Gutierrez, still bewildered that he actually saw that happen.

In another instance—now sort of a legend among CalTrans tollbooth operators—Gutierrez helped save the life of a young kid in the backseat of a car who was having a severe allergic reaction to peanuts. Gutierrez calmed the mother, shut down the lane, and called an ambulance. He later received awards from the Red Cross and former governor Gray Davis for his quick thinking. Gutierrez shrugs his shoulders to imply that it wasn’t a big deal.

Every once in a while, someone famous drives by. Danny Glover, Al Davis, Joe Montana, and Ricky Henderson have all passed through Gutierrez’ tollbooth. It’s what keeps it interesting, Gutierrez says, especially for an avid sports fan like himself. “It’s kind of fun, because everybody’s different,” he says.

Not only are the commuters who pass through Gutierrez’ tollbooth diverse, but so are his coworkers. The Bay Bridge toll collectors hail from West Africa to East India, from the southernmost tip of South America to the northernmost regions of Asia, and from both sides of the bay. Gutierrez jokes that you’d fit right in if you spoke five different languages.

By 12:30 pm, Gutierrez is back inside the Bay Area Transit Authority’s brand new building off of the I-80 highway. The building is big, with the familiar feel of a large post office. It has a sterile, clean quality with large whitewashed walls and that new paint smell. At the end of his shift, Gutierrez is tired, but happy. It’s his favorite part of the day, he says with a light laugh, when he can go home after a solid eight and half hours out on the lanes.

He takes his bags of money to the currency counting machines to make sure the total toll amounts add up to the number of axels he registered in the tool booth. He takes out the coins and slides them into the machine. Then, from his cashier’s tray, he takes out the wads of ones, then the fives, the tens and the twenties. Whiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Click. Stuff. Whiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrr. Click. Stuff. Fifteen minutes later, it’s over. Soon enough, money that began its days in a wallet or in the coffee cup holder next to a pack of gum will be deposited in a special safe, then later picked up by armored vehicles and taken to the bank.

“People think it’s an easy job,” Gutierrez says. “But it can get stressful dealing with ten different attitudes [and when] people treat us like a machine.” Most people are polite, Gutierrez says, but he remembers people being in better moods when the toll was 75 cents as opposed to the $4 to $6 it is now, not to mention when gas prices weren’t nearly as high. “We’re going through different times now,” he says about commuters. “People are stressed, they’re losing their jobs, their houses.”

Working at the Bay Bridge—the largest of the seven such bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area—is ideal for Gutierrez. His fellow collectors, many of whom live in Vallejo and have to cross the Carquinez Bridge, have to pay the toll fee before working inside the booth collecting that same toll all day. But because of where he lives, Gutierrez doesn’t have to pay a toll, and he doesn’t mind that one bit. “I save a lot of money,” he says. “There are quite a few collectors that have to pay the bridge. And it’s not cheap.”

By 1:00 pm, Guiterrez is back in his car, driving home. It’s been another long day, and he needs to try working in a nap before he runs errands and picks his son up from school to take him to baseball practice. Then, he’ll be in bed by 8:00 pm, and back up by 3 am, rested and ready for another shift out on the lanes.

One Comment

  1. John S.

    That’s an interesting article! It’s “axle,” though, not “axel.”

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