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So long to the NY Thruway toll workers. These are their stories.

Jon Campbell Brian Sharp
New York State Team

ROTTERDAM –Terrie Fyvie is used to the curious looks she gets when she's out and about.

Sometimes people seem to recognize her but can't quite figure out where from. It's happened to her at the grocery store, at jury duty, anywhere she sees people from around town.

"When I'm out in public, sometimes someone will say, 'I know I notice you from somewhere,'" said Fyvie, 55. "I'll say, 'the Thruway.' And they say, 'Oh, yeah!'"

Fyvie spent 25 years in a toll booth on the New York State Thruway, personally interacting with thousands of motorists as they entered or exited the state's 570-mile superhighway system. For the last 10 years, she's been a toll plaza manager.

She's developed relationships with her "regulars" — the commuters you can set your watch to, who pass through each day at the same time — and watched as their infants grew into kindergarteners and then into teenagers.

Fyvie will enter retirement on Thursday, a well-earned end to a 35-year career. But it's not entirely by choice.

Terrie Fyvie, shown here at Exit 26 on I-90, collected Thruway tolls for 25 years before becoming a toll plaza manager. Thruway toll booths are being replaced by automatic cashless tolling.

On Saturday, New York will flip the switch on an automated, cashless tolling system, ushering in a new era designed to improve efficiency and decrease congestion on the historic 66-year-old highway system connecting New York City to Albany to Buffalo.

The long-awaited change, however, comes at a significant personal cost: About 1,100 toll collectors will be put out of work, marking the end to yet another basic human interaction — however fleeting it may have been — in the name of technological advancement.

Toll collectors and managers have known the end was coming for nearly three years, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the $355 million cashless tolling project in his 2018 State of the State address.

But that doesn't make it any easier for people like Fyvie and Buffalo-area toll plaza manager Mary Bruckman, 58, legacy Thruway employees who dedicated their professional lives to ensuring motorists get on and off the toll highway with ease.

“I understand it’s progress. I understand all that,” Bruckman said. “But the toll collectors, really, they’ve done so many good things.”

66 years of Thruway toll booths, collectors

The Thruway has relied on employees to collect tolls from motorists ever since it opened in June 1954.

Since then, more than 12,000 people have served as toll collectors, staffing the 58 tolling locations across the 450-mile tolled portion of the Thruway 24 hours a day, seven days a week no matter the conditions, according to the Thruway Authority.

The nationwide trend over the last decade or more, however, has been toward automated tolling, eliminating the need for toll collectors and allowing motorists to enter and exit the highway at higher speeds. Overhead sensors and cameras will capture each vehicle's driver's license, with the owner billed by mail unless they have E-ZPass.

When New York changes Friday night into Saturday morning, the Thruway's 228 individual toll booths will go dark, never to be used again. The toll cards detailing the rates to each exit will be a thing of the past. 

At first, the booths will remain in place and drivers will pass through at reduced speeds without stopping. By summer 2021, the booths will be removed entirely.

More:Thruway cashless tolling begins Saturday: Here's what you need to know to avoid late fees

Multiple generations of Thruway workers

Bruckman and Fyvie are toll plaza managers on opposite ends of the state, with Fyvie overseeing booths near Schenectady and Bruckman, of Cheektowaga, overseeing those from Victor, Ontario County, to Ripley near the Pennsylvania line.

Both have the Thruway in their blood.

Fyvie's Thruway roots go back to the very beginning: Her grandfather helped build a stretch of Interstate 90 back in the 1950s. Now she's the third of four generations of Thruway workers, with her father, sister, brother, son and daughter all having worked there at one point or another.

A 39-year veteran of the highway system, Bruckman is the daughter of a former Thruway supervisor who retired after a major storm in 1977. Her husband retired from the Thruway in 2015 after 42 years; they met on the job.

“So many families have worked out here for generations …. that’s why it’s such a connection for people,” Bruckman said. “It sounds corny, but it’s more of a family than anything else.”

It's quite common to see Thruway workers from different generations of the same family, both said.

In the Thruway building at the Rotterdam toll plaza, Fyvie proudly shows off the awards the toll workers at the location have won, photos of which are in a display case.

Among them is a September 2010 employee of the month placard for her daughter, Laura, who was working at the time as a part-time collector on breaks from college.

While inside, Fyvie introduced a reporter to Richard Mead, 58, a toll maintenance worker for the last 30 years. Mead's father, Clark, and Fyvie's father, Ralph, worked together for the Thruway Authority decades ago.

”We were raised in this environment,” Mead said.

Timeline:A history of toll collection on the New York Thruway

Toll workers have seen it all

Mary Bruckman of Cheektowaga at the New York State Thruway Williamsville Toll Barrier Nov. 12, 2020.  Bruckman, a toll plaza manager 3 for the Thruway, will retire after the conversion and administrative work with the tolls is finished.

Together, Fyvie and Bruckman have a combined 74 years of service in the Thruway's toll division. And they've seen it all.

Most of the long-timers like Bruckman followed the same path, starting in a part-time job — she began at Exit 49 in the Buffalo area — before having to move to the Albany or New York City area to get a full-time job.

Then you would wait for a transfer to your home region before perhaps heading back downstate for a management position, which brought on another wait for a transfer opportunity.

But, she explained, “it was a good job, so people did it.”

Prior to becoming a manager, Bruckman worked in toll booths in Williamsville, Depew, Pembroke, the South Grand Island Bridge and New Rochelle. Now, she oversees tolling plazas across western New York.

In all weather, at all hours, toll collectors are an extra set of eyes on the roads, helping authorities locate vehicles of suspects or people in need, providing directions, sometimes medical aid and even shelter, she said.

There have been medical emergencies, such as the man who walked toward a toll booth while suffering a heart attack, Bruckman said. A toll collector performed CPR until emergency medical services could arrive.

There have been customers who have sought help, with Thruway employees keeping them in their building for a few days, providing them food when they got hungry, she said.

And there have been plenty of good times, too. There are co-workers, many of whom have worked together for 25 years or more, who have become like family.

"We spent our holidays together, our weekends together, we’ve been to weddings, funerals, baptisms – anything you can think of as a group," Bruckman said.

"The camaraderie is really good. We have regular customers who come through daily. The collectors love to see those people and those people look forward to seeing (the collectors) as well.”

More:Thruway cashless tolling set to begin this weekend

Toll workers followed similar path

Terrie Fyvie, toll plaza manager, shows photos of toll workers who received awards that are displayed in the Thruway building at Exit 26 in Rotterdam, New York. At right is a photo of Fyvie's daughter, the September 2010 employee of the month.

Fyvie followed a similar career path. 

She started her career as a 20-year-old college student in 1985, working as a part-time toll collector at Exit 24 in Albany to make money.

She went full-time soon after, transferring to the Woodbury exit in Orange County, where she would occasionally see members of the New York Mets traveling to do their shopping at Woodbury Common, the outlet mall. A year later, she was able to transfer back to the Albany area. 

In 1987, Fyvie had just completed an overnight shift at Exit 28 in Fultonville, Montgomery County, when her mother called her with awful news: A Thruway bridge collapsed in nearby Fort Hunter, not far from her exit. Ten people would die.

“I had just gotten home and my mom, who lives in Fort Hunter, she actually called the house to make sure I had made it home because she had heard a white car had gone in," said Fyvie, who drove a white car at the time. "She’s the one who actually broke the news to me.”

She immediately thought of the maintenance crews who had been working nonstop, dealing with recent flooding. She worried she knew someone who had been on the bridge, though ultimately that wasn't the case.

"When you’re doing this job, you just don’t brush it off as another motorist," Fyvie said. "You feel it a little more. They mean more to you.”

Among toll workers, some stories have become legendary.

There was Fyvie's supervisor who helped deliver a baby in the employee parking lot at Exit 24 in the late 2000s when the mother couldn't make it to the hospital. 

Then, against all odds, the same situation played out again: A co-worker helped deliver another baby in the Exit 25 parking lot not too long thereafter, Fyvie said.

More:E-ZPass will become more vital in New York: Here are helpful tips to know

Some toll workers eligible for retirement

The New York State Thruway Williamsville Toll Barrier has workers collecting tolls, Nov. 12, 2020.  Some of the equipment used in the booths have been brought into the office next to the toll barrier as the Thruway gets ready to go cashless.

Of the 1,100 current toll workers, there are about 200 full-timers and 900 part-timers, according to the Thruway Authority.

Of the 200 full-timers, about a third are eligible for retirement benefits. That doesn't include the toll plaza managers like Fyvie and Bruckman, of which there are a few dozen. 

The Thruway Authority has offered toll collection staffers a career development and training in hopes of landing them another job, including tuition assistance, commercial driver's license certification and civil service exams, according to spokesperson Jennifer Givner.

But the fact remains that, once the cashless tolling system is flipped on, those workers will be out of a job.

Bruckman acknowledged she's one of the lucky ones. With more than 30 years of service and her being over the age of 55, she's eligible for retirement.

The same is true of Fyvie, who just turned 55 this year.

Fyvie is planning on taking a break this winter before picking up a hobby in the spring and summer. Gardening is a major contender; she used to tend to the flowers in front of her toll booth when she was a collector.

"We knew it was coming. It was inevitable," Fyvie said of cashless tolling.

"I'm looking forward to being retired. It's kind of sad because it was like my family. It's kind of a mixed emotion with not seeing these people every day — the people who come through, the people you work with."

Bruckman said she will take away great memories of her time in Thruway tolls. The relationships she formed with colleagues and customers will last a lifetime, she said.

"I know I'll miss it," she said. "There's no question in my mind."

More:Cashless tolling remains on track for Thruway despite pandemic

More:Will the New York Thruway be renamed after Frederick Douglass? Lawmakers consider doing so

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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