Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll-taker unfazed by jams

It's the bump in the road to paradise, the bottleneck between you and the beach. Before you get to the ocean, you have to get over the Bay Bridge. Before you can get to the Bay Bridge you have to get past someone like Arlene Roberts.

She is in one of the toll booths, waiting to take your $2.50 if only you can get through the inevitable Route 50 crush of too many cars, engines and occupants overheating.


Roberts, by contrast, is the happiest person for miles around.

"I like working the summers because when the traffic backs up, I get a rush," she says, eyes glinting rather devilishly, hands miming how quickly she can take your money and give back change. "I like it when it backs up."


Maybe it takes a certain perverse personality to be a toll-taker on the bridge, stuck in a tiny booth inhaling the exhaust of customers who are heading toward the sea breezes. But Roberts isn't quite as sadistic as she sounds — the reason she loves summertime traffic is because it makes her all the faster at speeding you on your way.

"I can do 300 cars an hour," says Roberts, who took her first toll back in 1975.

Fellow collectors tease her from their own booths when traffic is spotty rather than steady: "This is killing you, right?" It is. "I can't get loose," the 54-year-old Roberts says.

Watching her now, smoothly taking and handing back bills, coins and a smile to the passing parade, it's hard to believe she was a self-described "nervous wreck" when she started on the job. She was plunked into a truck lane, where you have to count the tires to calculate the fee. Roberts used to go home and dream about it.

"Can you stop waking me up telling me what the truck has?" her husband said of her nighttime mumblings about tires and axles.

Perhaps it was inevitable she would become a toll-taker. Roberts was born in Baltimore but moved as a child to Grasonville on the other side of the Bay Bridge. Her mother frequently took her back to Baltimore to visit family, and she remembers being fascinated by the people taking the tolls.

"Do they have legs?" the young Arlene wondered.

After high school, she became one of them, one of the people you only see from the waist up in the window of their booths. She was hired and worked part-time for 10 years, left for other jobs and returned on a full-time basis in 1990.


At a time when more drivers are using EZ-Pass instead of handing over cash, toll-takers are a lingering bit of humanity in an increasingly automated world. Some drivers clearly appreciate the personal touch.

"Doughnuts, flowers, stuffed animals, bottles of water," Roberts says, ticking off a mental list of gifts that drivers have given her over the years.

She has her regulars, the business people and truckers who cross the bridge enough that driver and toll-taker know each other at least by face. Most of them have switched to EZ-Pass by now, she says, but they'll honk and wave.

On this particular day, there's the usual shore-bound traffic — cars packed with luggage and beach balls, kids texting in the back seat. Then there are the wild cards that keep things interesting: One car has Aruba license plates. Someone pays the $2.50 toll with a hundred-dollar bill. A woman's 20-dollar bill flutters away but is retrieved. And, yes, a man gives Roberts a box of doughnuts.

Sometimes a famous face will drive through.

"I had Kenny Rogers once," she said of the country-western singer. "I got an autographed picture. I've had the Temptations, the WWF wrestlers."


Never a naked person, although that's a common story from others who have done their time in the booth.

"Back when we collected both ways, you would get them coming back from the beach," confirms Roberts' boss, Catherine Noone, Maryland Transit Authority toll collection manager. "Maybe they got sunburned."

Noone misses collecting sometimes, although she says it's not an easy job. "If I need one position, I'm going to ask for 10 or 12 people to interview for it."

Applicants have to pass a math and spelling test to even get an interview, and they have to be able to handle both prickly customers and money — they're audited every day to make sure the amount they turn in matches the number of vehicles that went through their lane.

On this day, Roberts is in Lane 8, which she reached by walking from the offices through a tunnel that runs under Route 50 and then up a flight of stairs to the booth. Maybe she'll see a regular, maybe she'll see something odd, like the woman who drove through with a snake wrapped around her neck. Maybe she'll see that man who used to give her a box of candy every Christmas until several years ago.

Maybe he died, it's suggested. Roberts prefers the toll-taker's happier explanation for lost customers.


"He probably just got EZ-Pass," she says.