MOUNT VERNON — Beginning Saturday, drivers crossing the Wabash Memorial Bridge to and from Illinois will still have to pay 50 cents to cross the bridge — they just won't have to stop to do it.
Instead, the toll will be collected automatically via transponder or it can be paid online after the vehicle crosses the bridge. Toll collection by the new method will begin at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.
The new system also means the end for the human toll collectors and the toll booth itself, which is the original structure built along with the bridge in 1956.
Cher Goodwin, a spokeswoman with the Indiana Department of Transportation, said the change will the save the state between $400,000 and $500,000 annually and noted that many other states, as well as portions of the Indiana Toll Road in the Northern Indiana, have already implemented similar systems.
Goodwin said attendants collected the last tolls inside the booth earlier this week. The booth was demolished Wednesday morning.
"We had toll operators (collecting) 24 hours a day in the booth until Monday morning, but because we were starting to make preparations for the dismantling, we stopped charging tolls Monday morning," Goodwin said.
Now, cameras will take a photo of a vehicle's license plate, as well as the driver's face.
Watching the booth come down was an emotional sight for longtime attendant Linda King, 63, of Mount Vernon.
"I hate for it to happen, but it's progress, and it will be better for the commuters that come back and forth every day," King said.
She said both the other workers and the commuters she talked to while collecting their money became her second family, especially since her daughter and grandchildren live in Tennessee. A couple from Eldorado, Ill., even invited her to the family's Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners last year.
"This was my kind of my life. I'm single, and I worked, and I went home," King said.
Not only did King work in the tiny toll booth for almost 15 years — hot summer days were almost unbearable, she admitted — but her father Paul Barnes helped build the bridge.
"I've got a connection to this (bridge)," King said. "... So it's hard, but we've gotten a lot of compliments on our bridge, (people) tell us how pretty it is and how much nicer it is to drive on."
Goodwin said the bridge employed eight full-time employees, including King, who were notified of the coming change earlier this year. She said INDOT is trying to help them find new jobs. King said her job future is uncertain when she leaves the toll office on Jan. 7, but she hopes she can stay on with INDOT.
"I'm hoping there is a placement for me. I just need two or three years until I can retire, and I'm looking forward to that," she said. "I hope I can find a job with the state, I've enjoyed working for them, and they've been good to me over the years."
While King understands that the new system will be a convenience for the approximately 6,000 people who use the bridge daily, she said several drivers don't see it that way. Though she said that makes her feel good, she tries to convince them otherwise.
"They're not happy. They're just used to the other way. They said they would rather pay more toll to keep us rather than to have it the new way," King said. "But like I tell them, it will be a lot nicer for them, and they'll adjust."
Goodwin said workers have already handed out about 7,000 free transponders to drivers in preparation for the changeover, and INDOT will post signs telling drivers how to pay if they don't have one.
She said there are no plans to raise the 50-cent toll for the bridge, which is the last toll bridge in the state. She warned that drivers who intentionally try to avoid fines by either not setting up an automated account or never paying online will be reported to law enforcement, though no rules have been finalized on how many times a vehicle will be allowed to not pay the fee until that step is needed.
"They are knowingly breaking the law," Goodwin said. "It is considered theft."