"Mass Pike Tollbooth" by William F. Yurasko on Flickr
On October 28, the Massachusetts Turnpike switched to an all-electronic tolling method, and immediately thereafter, began to tear out the tollbooths that had been the gateways and choke points of the Pike since its construction in the 1950s and 1960s. Unobtrusive gantries over the highway now do all the data collection for the toll-taking. It’s been very strange to drive freely through spots that have been obstructed since I was born, and I’ve been reflecting on the change.
Will I miss the inevitable slow-downs, dead standstills, and general daily congestion from the tollbooths? The white-knuckled “this is the moment I will die” feeling at the chaotic merge that took place just after passing through some of the more heavily trafficked spots? Or the daily risk I know was borne by the people who worked there? Definitely not.
But do I feel a pang of recognition about so many human jobs disappearing, especially now that this has been cited as one of the top reasons for our presidential election outcome? And a greater concern about the security and privacy of the data on my driving habits that is now silently and remotely tracked? Definitely. (Admittedly I’ve been giving away that data for years through my transponder, but until now that was my choice – I could always have paid cash and gone under the radar, so to speak.)
Beyond the disappearance of the 500+ jobs and my privacy, though, I’m grieving the end of those rusty old tollbooths for so many other reasons:
- The familiar faces of the toll takers, when I was a regular commuter without a transponder. I still remember some of them clearly, the ones who made their work fun by engaging the drivers who passed through with humor and optimism.
- The legendary (mythical?) high salaries of those tollbooth workers – fodder for so many jokes over the years.
- The “Dick McGyver” character that comedian Billy West created in the 1980s for radio station WBCN (also now defunct) – a weathered, Boston-accented toll-taking curmudgeon who recounted short, hilarious vignettes from his workday. Listen here and here.
- The tribal knowledge of where the “secret” entrances/exits were; and stories, like my older brother’s, of commuting to college in the 1970s and amassing a stack of paper tickets because he always exited at one such “free” location.
- The layers of stickers on the booths where no human presided – mostly local bands, some political, some unfathomable messages and symbols – either where a machine spit out your ticket or where you threw your quarters into the basket. Where will the bands stick their stickers now, that will be seen by so many eyes each day? (I realize this is an antiquated concern. If they have an active social media presence, they’ll get those impressions and be able to measure them too.)
- That basket toss coming into Boston! The panic and scramble to find the correct change (no pennies allowed!), the exhilaration when the gate lifted and you were on your way to a certain good time in the city, or better yet, onward to the airport.
- The access tunnels under the booths with their intriguing tiny spiral staircases, that I always wished I could visit. (if only they’d given public tours before they tore it all out, probably too great a liability, but you can see video here.)
- The FREEZING wintertime window roll-down before transponders came along, and the daily sympathy for the workers with their gloves and hot coffees who had to withstand the cold and the wind for their entire shift.
“They’re really gone,” my son said about the tollbooths as we exited the Pike this past weekend, returning from a day in Boston. “They were the way I knew that we were close to home.”
“Yes,” I said, “they’ve been there my whole life, it’s strange having them gone.”
“The robots are invading. Everything is automated,” he said.
“Yes,” I answered.