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New York Thruway to Make Shift to Cashless Tolling

In place of human toll collectors, gantries that arch over the highway will scan transponders and photograph the license plates of cars without transponders. The change is expected to reduce traffic on the highway.

by Abigail Rubel, Times Union / November 9, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Toll collectors have manned the New York State Thruway for 66 years, but their era will come to an end this month when the Thruway converts to cashless tolling.

"I've paid people's tolls. I've given people money for gas," said longtime toll collector Allan Youngstein. "I've got propositioned. I've gotten flashed."

Youngstein began working for the Thruway Authority in 1980 at the age of 25. He started his career downstate, working at toll plazas in New Rochelle, Yonkers and on the Tappan Zee Bridge. He was eventually promoted to toll plaza manager, and he now works at the Rotterdam plaza.

In place of the toll collectors, gantries that arch over the highway will scan E-ZPass transponders and photograph the license plates of cars without transponders. The change is expected to reduce traffic and streamline the highway.

The Thruway's 228 tollbooths will linger after the toll collectors leave. The work of removing them and redesigning the toll plazas will continue through the summer of 2021, according to the Thruway Authority. Until then, drivers will continue to drive through the existing toll lanes at reduced speeds.

Contractors will dispose of most of the tollbooths. A few will be saved, but the Thruway Authority has not yet determined where they will go.

About 1,100 toll collector positions will be eliminated by the switch, the vast majority of which are part-time.

Roger Panetta, a professor of history at Fordham University, places the removal of the tollbooths — and the toll collectors — within the Thruway's ongoing march towards greater efficiency.

"It is an extension of the expertise of engineers who looked at (the highway) and said, 'This is not good. We have lines at the tollbooths on a highway system meant to inculcate speed,'" he said.

According to Geoffrey Stein, a former senior historian at the New York State Museum, the purpose of the Thruway from the beginning has always been to remove obstacles from motorists' paths.

Indeed, just three years after the first section of the Thruway opened in 1954, the Thruway Authority was already making the tolling process more efficient by installing exact change coin drops.

The benefits of cashless tolling are touted by the Thruway Authority and traffic engineers alike.

"Cashless tolling is the future of tolling," said Jennifer Givner, director of media relations for the Thruway Authority. "Inherently, it reduces congestion because people don't have to slow down and come to these chokepoints."

Yinhai Wang, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Washington, said that cashless toll systems offer reductions in travel time, accidents and environmentally harmful emissions.

"People aren't braking, people aren't changing lanes erratically, it's a traffic calmer," agreed Sarah Catz, a research associate at University of California Irvine's Institute of Transportation Studies. "I can't think of another word besides calming."

Cashless tolling systems also make it easier to implement congestion management strategies to further reduce traffic.

In Orange County, Calif., Catz said, the transportation agency raised tolls at rush hour to encourage commuters to alter their schedules and thus alleviate traffic at the busiest times of day. This strategy reduced travel during peak hours on the toll road, but some of the traffic did move to an alternate route running alongside.

Wang cited a similar strategy used on Washington's State Route 167, which charges solo drivers a toll for the use of high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.

The toll is "dynamic," he explained. As more cars enter the lane, the toll goes up. The amount drivers pay is calculated by a traffic management algorithm that operates within boundaries set by the state transportation commission. The algorithm uses real-time data from the gantries to keep traffic moving at a target speed of no less than 45 mph.

Although the Thruway Authority has not announced plans to implement similar congestion management strategies on the superhighway, drivers in New York City saved more than 3 million hours of travel time in the first year after the Metropolitan Transit Authority converted its bridges and tunnels to cashless tolling.

Any easing of traffic comes as a relief to drivers on the Thruway, for whom congestion has long been a complaint.

When Youngstein worked as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge (since renamed the Mario Cuomo Bridge), he often saw traffic backed up as much as 10 miles.

"You could work a double shift and never see pavement," he said.

During his lengthy career, Youngstein collected more than just tolls, and the Thruway memorabilia he acquired now resides at the New York State Museum.

The tollbooth culture documented by Youngstein is "something that's going to go away, so we want to collect it and help tell an important part of New York state history," said senior State Museum historian Brad Utter.

Youngstein began accumulating Thruway odds and ends at the toll station in Yonkers.

Each toll plaza on the Thruway has a toll station next to the tollbooths, where workers take their breaks. When the Yonkers toll station was renovated in the mid-1990s, its barren, newly painted walls felt drab and institutional to Youngstein. He wanted to liven them up and make the station a more pleasant place for the people who worked there. So he contacted a photographer he knew and asked for pictures of Yonkers, which he displayed alongside some of his old uniform patches. A co-worker suggested he check Ebay for more Thruway items to display, and his collection quickly grew.

The historical items in Youngstein's collection recall the many important changes in the state marked by the opening of the Thruway.

"It became the main artery for commerce into the present day," said Skidmore professor Tom Lewis.

It functioned as the new "way to the west," like the railroads and the Erie Canal, whose routes the Thruway followed, he added.

The Thruway also spurred the growth of New York City's suburbs and expanded statewide tourism, enabling New Yorkers to escape the city and easily access the rest of the state, Panetta of Fordham explained.

The postcards and decorative plates in Youngstein's collection demonstrate that the Thruway became a destination in itself.

"That's what they were promoting, this modern technology, this modern highway. The way of the future," said Utter of the State Museum.

Although the Thruway opened one chapter in New York history, it closed another as train travel, once dominant in the state, fell out of favor.

Once the Thruway opened, passenger train traffic fell away outside the Hudson River Valley corridor, Utter said.

As the range of motorists expanded, areas that previously thought of themselves as rural, especially Rockland County, were transformed into suburbs, Panetta explained.

"I remember reading one writer who was fighting the Tappan Zee Bridge when it was built, and he said 'This is the end of Rockland County as a kind of idyllic rural community,' and he was right," Panetta said.

Recognizing the impact of the move to cashless tolling, the Thruway Authority has been working since the change was announced in 2018 to help those workers affected by it.

For example, Givner said, the Authority has offered commercial drivers license courses, training courses for civil service exams and tuition reimbursement for classes at local colleges.

About one-third of the 200 full-time employees are eligible for retirement, according to Givner.

"I think I'm the senior guy now, and it's funny," said Youngstein, who plans to retire when the Thruway goes cashless. "I remember ribbing the guys back then. They'd talk about stuff and I was like, 'I wasn't even born when you were collecting tolls.' I got people that can say that to me now."

Like Youngstein, the collection he amassed harkens back to a bygone era of toll collecting.

Currently, toll collectors do not wear a full uniform. But for decades, they were issued pants (or skirts), jackets and hats along with various badges and patches to identify them.

In the summers before cooling systems were installed in tollbooths, Youngstein said, the uniforms were uncomfortably warm.

When he worked at the Tappan Zee Bridge, however, the toll station had showers. So Youngstein got creative. "I'd bring two uniforms, and at lunch time I'd run up and take a quick shower," he said.

"They only gave us four pairs of pants. You had two winter, two summer, and everything was dry cleaned. We used to turn it in on a Monday and the dry cleaner would get it back on a Wednesday," he said.

Youngstein said the uniforms often caused people to mistake toll collectors for policemen.

"I'm still friends with some of the troopers, and they always rib me. When I was on the Tappan Zee Bridge, a guy that was wanted for something in Florida surrendered to me," he said.

Youngstein's collection also contains reminders of some of the other services toll collectors performed for drivers.

When Bruce Lyon, the mayor of Dolgeville from 2003 to 2018, broke down in a toll lane at Exit 24, the staff there gathered to help him.

"They did what we do all the time for everybody," Youngstein said. "If anyone breaks down, we contact the road service. We assist them. In hot weather, I've let people into our building to have water and cool off."

Lyon was so appreciative that he arranged for the Adirondack baseball bat factory in Dolgeville (now owned by Rawlings) to manufacture a special engraved bat commemorating the occasion. The bat hung on the wall of the Exit 24 station for years, until the workers started cleaning it out in preparation for their departure. Someone thought it might be of interest to Youngstein, who passed the bat and its story on to the State Museum with the rest of his collection.

"That's one reason why we're here: to preserve that history and to be able to talk about it and to show where we've come from," said Utter.

©2020 the Times Union, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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