Traffic

Taking a toll: Human collectors vanishing, but not at Card Sound bridge

Ten miles off South Dixie Highway on Card Sound Road, tourists in shiny red convertibles pass commuters in silver and black pickup trucks.

Some are heading to the biker bar Alabama Jack’s — where they serve deep fried conch fritters and cocktails in plastic cups. Other are making their way to the Ocean Reef Club, a beachfront community where golf carts glide past the pastel homes and pristine lawns.

Just before Card Sound’s last bend stands a bright blue canopy, a sentry stretching across the two-lane road: “Welcome to Monroe County and the fabulous Florida Keys.’’ Underneath is a blue tollbooth where two people work side by side, sharing the nine-square-foot space.

“Whoa there!” says Bill Nemec, to a driver who slammed on his brakes minutes before the toll gate, oblivious to the stop sign and green-and-white posting that states: “Cars $1.00 EACH WAY.’’

“SunPass has become so dominant people think that everywhere takes SunPass,” said Nemec, who stacks quarters in between toll collecting. He was on the side heading to Key Largo; 72-year-old John Struckman, with a full head of gray hair, manned the Miami route.

Since the Card Sound Bridge opened in 1969, the toll has been the same — 50 cents per axle, cash only.

The sight of a person inside a toll booth is becoming increasingly rare. The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority no longer has toll collectors — last year marked the end of a four-year project converting its 16 toll plazas to automated electronic “gantries.’’ Last September, the Venetian and Rickenbacker causeways went automated. And as of Aug. 29, two toll plazas on Florida’s Turnpike in Broward County — Griffin Road and Hollywood/Pines Boulevard — are staffed no longer.

According to the Florida Department of Transportation, 78 state-run tollbooths have gone from human-operated to automated in the last decade. Today, the state employs 684 toll collectors, down from 1,853 a decade ago — a 63 percent drop. And a proposed transportation plan mandates that toll plazas built on federally funded highways be completely electronic after October 2016.

“The biggest benefit is safety for both customers and employees,” FDOT spokesman Kim Poulton said in a statement. “Removing the tollbooths eliminates the potential for drivers to make sudden lane changes, which can result in accidents at the plaza.”

BUILDING A RAPPORT

Just before the midday sun peaks each weekday, Maryanne Biggar drives her silver pickup through the tollbooth. Twice a day for 27 years.

Biggar, a property manager at Ocean Reef, greets Ken Murray, though she knows him only as “Cowboy,” a nickname borne out of the straw hat and purple dashiki the 6-foot-tall Murray dons. Aerosmith is usually playing, and Murray’s latest tattoo of a crocodile posted on a dock peeks out as he stoops to show Biggar the latest photo of his grandkids.

“It’s like there’s a friend on the road with you,” Biggar said. “We know so much about each other having had these 10- and 20-second snippets of conversation. It’s turned into the whole history of the person standing there at the bridge toll.”

In her nearly three decades of commuting, the Florida native has shared her avocado and mango harvests with the collectors, baked breads and cookies during Christmas and regaled them with her tales of bird watching along Card Sound Road. Murray’s always able to reciprocate with stories of the crocodiles he’s seen cross the road, and the armadillos, gray foxes and hawks he’s known during his 24 years as a collector.

Murray, 58, moved to South Florida from Connecticut, where he worked at a steel mill. He started working the night shift at the toll bridge in 1992. When he was widowed three years later, the schedule allowed him to stay home during the day to raise his kids.

It was under the same blue canopy Murray met his second wife, Erica, who passed him her phone number one day with the fare. A phone call and few years later, Murray proposed outside the tollbooth. (He refused to have the wedding there.)

When she died in 2007, his regular commuters sent their condolences. And after three years seeing the toll collector, primping her hair at the base of the bridge, a woman named Patti admitted to him that she was smitten — the two were married in Redland last year.

Murray’s story isn’t unlike the one Laura Jennings Oudin, a folk singer from Homestead, wrote about Card Sound Toll Plaza. The wispy-haired artist sings at Ocean Reef and picks up odd jobs when she can. The tollbooth charmed her to write Tollbooth Romance, a ballad about the man who works the tolls and the woman who “slips her number on a dollar bill.”

Driving down Card Sound Road, she’s humming an old Beatles tune, ‘Oooh I need your love babe', it makes her think of him. ‘Round the corner up ahead, the toll booth to the Keys’ south bridge, she knows he’s working there ... gives her goosebumps on her skin.”

Jennings Oudin said she was moved by the people she met at the toll, the “Hi, how ya doin’” feel.

“That sense of community and connection ... it’s a dying aspect of our culture in this country and I wanted to hold onto it,” she said.

WHAT LIES AHEAD

It’s possible the Card Sound Bridge collectors may meet the same fate as those already phased out. Monroe County commissioners met earlier this summer to discuss contracting engineers to estimate the cost of automating, although one commissioner, Sylvia Murphy, assured that it’s still speculation.

“We would like to come into the 21st century and we’ll get there,” Murphy said. “We move quite slowly and we’re spending other people’s money so it takes a long time.”

If automation does come, the tollbooth's nine employees will be offered other jobs with the county.

“That’s a horror story for those of us working here,” said Struckman, who has been working the tolls at Card Sound for seven years. “I guess my other alternative would be being a Walmart greeter, which I'm not really looking forward to.”

Struckman isn't sure his skills would transfer to an office job. The yacht carpenter-turned-toll-collector prides himself on his friendly banter, his jokes with his regular commuters, and his quick toss of a biscuit to the dogs that ride shotgun. Another job would mean a longer commute from his Current Mistress — the 37-foot sailboat he calls home.

Struckman doesn’t have a retirement fund and plans to keep working full time as long as he can. Last year he earned $27,400, enough to dock his boat and take a few trips to see his grandkids in the Midwest. He's already started the next chapter of his book during his lunch breaks in an air-conditioned trailer on the side of Card Sound Road. It’s about the things he’s seen and done in his 72 years.

Murray hopes to work three more years, until he's 62 and will retire and work his ranch in Homestead. Murray's been at the plaza longer than all of the other collectors.

"It's been my life for 25 years now," he said. "I'm hoping to ride it out here as long as possible."

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew wiped out most of buildings along the road. The toll collectors fled to Homestead. When they returned, Murray said, the “Welcome to the Keys” canopy was found floating in the bay.

But the tollbooth, made of concrete, was still standing.

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