Bay Bridge is no holiday

Labor Day: Though they watch others relaxing throughout the long weekend, workers at the toll plaza don't complain ... too much.

September 04, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | By Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Some days, Beverly Gernert is wistful as she leans out of her toll booth window and looks at the rows of cars waiting to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, headed toward the ocean.

They'll pass through her lane - SUVs filled with coolers, boogie boards, beach blankets; the convertibles with beach music blaring. The drivers will smile. Some of them will even say, "Wish we could take you with us."

Some days, Gernert says, "I wish they could take me with them."

She has spent the long weekend designed to honor the working class laboring instead of relaxing.

Lots of people working the Labor Day holiday are thinking about the crowds enjoying the last bit of summer. But at the Bay Bridge toll plaza, the workers have to watch them.

That's 296,000 vehicles over the four-day weekend, according to Maryland Transportation Authority predictions - almost all of them filled with families, couples, and friends who will sit and watch the waves, have dinner by the water and soak up the sun, although rain and earlier school openings may have thinned the crowds.

"This weekend hasn't been bad at all," said Gernert, a collector for the past two years and for a few years in the early 1970s.

Saturday's count of 89,226 was lower than that of the Saturday before, when 95,800 cars, motorcycles and trucks crossed the Bay Bridge, said MTA spokeswoman Kerry E. Brandt.

When vehicles stall, Patrick Crogan, a 32-year-old vehicle recovery technician, rescues them. He tows the overheated cars and those that run out of gas midspan - and helps out motorists afraid to drive over the 4-mile span. "Hey, I'll drive you all the way there," Crogan says jokingly.

He hasn't been to Ocean City in more than a decade. He says he'd rather be sailing this Labor Day weekend.

But MTA police Officer Robert T. Krauss wouldn't mind parking his patrol car and getting on his Harley, trading in his uniform for a pair of shorts, a pullover, and going barefoot on the beach. After working the Labor Day weekend, the 33-year-old Edgemere resident says he plans to do just that next weekend.

But yesterday he was on patrol - investigating some minor accidents, listening, as always, to drivers who are telling him they're driving 80 mph to 90 mph on the 50-mph bridge because they are "just keeping up with traffic" or because someone in their car has to go to the bathroom.

"There are places to stop before and right after the bridge," Krauss notes.

Gernert doesn't have to listen to as many lame excuses. She is one of 37 toll collectors at the bridge, posted on the eastbound lanes. The state removed the toll booths from the westbound lanes, and doubled the toll one-way to speed the return trip from the shore.

Almost everyone has money for the $2.50 toll, Gernert says, even though they occasionally hand it to her in pennies. "People have money going down," she explains.

But when she was a collector in the '70s - before the toll booths were all moved to the eastbound lanes - Gernert says, "People were always coming back broke."

Occasionally, someone will come up short, so their license and vehicle registration information is taken and they sign a promise to mail the toll later. Once, Gernert says, "I had a girl pull up crying. I guess she thought we'd hold her hostage, the poor thing."

More often, people are paying for cars behind them - sometimes even when they don't know the driver. "It's that Oprah thing - random acts of kindness, or however that goes," says Gernert, 47, of Grasonville.

From her, drivers almost always get a wide smile and a hearty "Have a nice time."

"I like people," she says. "That's why I like this job."

She could sit down on a stool for what could be a mind-numbing eight-hour shift. But, she says, "I'm just not one to sit down."

Instead, she turns on her favorite country music radio station and chats with people passing by.

She dispenses advice on the age-old debate about whether to take the Route 404 exit before Easton or to stay on U.S. 50 to the beach. "I say 50. Most of it is three lanes. It's real smooth sailing."

But the question that really floors her is: "How do we get to Ocean City?"

"Then, when I tell them it's 110 miles, they say `Nah-uh.' They think it's right on the other side of the bridge."

She is laughing now, not the least bit exasperated. She says she's not upset about working the holiday. "You know when you take the job you'll have to work weekends."

And when the traffic piles up as everyone heads home, Gernert says, "Then, I'm glad I'm here and that I didn't go with them."

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