BALTIMORE — On the road home after the holidays, thousands of Marylanders and other interstate drivers will meet Beth Orefice and her coworkers so briefly they won't have a chance to shake hands.

But the 55-year-old Fort McHenry Tunnel toll collector and her 84 remaining colleagues around the state won’t be taking drivers’ cash much longer.

Maryland is approaching the end of a decades-long shift toward automated tolling at its bridges and tunnels.

Tolls on the Francis Scott Key and Thomas J. Hatem bridges went cashless in 2019, and the Maryland Transportation Authority expects to do the same with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge this year. The Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge in Southern Maryland, which is being replaced, will go cashless when the new bridge opens in 2023, officials said.

No official end date has been announced for the workers at the McHenry Tunnel, Baltimore Harbor Tunnel and Interstate 95 tolls, but the state has stopped hiring full-time collectors in favor of contract workers in anticipation of the remaining roles being eliminated. Behind the scenes, the agency has been switching out its automated toll equipment and training outgoing toll collectors — the longtime faces of the agency — for new jobs in state government, helping them enroll in college courses and trying to prepare them for wherever else the road may lead.

“I’m sorry to see it go all-cashless, but everything has to move on,” Orefice said in an interview. “There’s nothing you can do about it, you know? Just try to be positive and find something else.”

'You've got to be able to multitask'

The guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” blared from a small radio tuned to 98 Rock inside the heated toll booth and a brutally cold wind blew from the harbor on a recent weekday afternoon as Orefice greeted dozens of drivers with her usual “Hi, how’re you?” as she took the cash they held out.

In a well-rehearsed motion, the Bowleys Quarters woman entered each driver’s fare on a touch-screen computer monitor — two-axle ($4), three-axle ($8), four-axle ($12), five-axle ($24), six-plus ($30), motorcycle ($4) — counted change out loud, dollar-by-dollar, printed a receipt for those who wanted one, and waved them farewell with a “Have a good day.”

The whole process takes just a few seconds but required weeks on the job to perfect, she said.

“A lot of people think it’s very easy, but it’s not really,” said Orefice, who grew up in Cecil County. “You have to be a very pleasant person, you have to be patient, know how to count and handle money. You have to be dependable. . . . You’ve got to be able to multitask.”

Between customers, Orefice, a former Royal Farms cashier, tapped her fingers on the toll booth’s open register drawer, where she keeps $1 bills ready to give quick change to people who pay with $5, $10 or $20 bills. Trained to identify counterfeit money, Orefice, who makes about $35,000 a year, held the larger bills up and squinted into the afternoon sun to check for the telltale presidential outlines that verify their authenticity.

In less than a half hour, a wide slice of society greeted her on its way through the tunnel.

A tactical police officer was frustrated to learn he needed to pay the fare, despite displaying his badge, because he was in an unmarked car.

“If he was military and he had orders, I could do that,” she said afterward. “This is the way I was taught.”

The stink of marijuana wafted into the booth from another car.

“Smell that?” she asked. “We get a lot of that. What can you do?”

One trucker was a dollar short. Turned out, he’d dropped it on his lap.

“I knew I had it ready for you!” he told her, blushing sheepishly.

Orefice grinned as a Transportation Authority tow truck driver stopped to say hello.

“Hi! Bye!” she said to the driver — her husband, Ed.

Nearly everyone else is in a hurry, and some complain when traffic backs up, Orefice said. But impatient drivers aren’t her biggest concern. It’s running out of change, which happened just 20 minutes into one of her shifts the day before Thanksgiving. To get more, toll workers must radio their supervisor, who comes out to the booth to break big bills.

A supervisor’s voice crackled over the intercom: “Attention collectors, first break will be at 3 o’clock. Please come back on time.”

New career paths

Maryland has offered drivers some version of automated tolls since Memorial Day weekend in 1959, when the state installed coin baskets to collect 40-cent fares at the Susquehanna River Bridge on Route 40. It was renamed Hatem in 1986.

To ease summertime beach traffic 30 years later, Gov. William Donald Schaefer doubled the Bay Bridge’s westbound fare and eliminated the tolls headed east.

TollTag, the first version of the E-ZPass, was introduced in 1993, and the state has been publicly eyeing an all-automated system since 2012.

“It’s about the customer’s experience,” said Jim Ports, the Transportation Authority’s executive director. “That’s where the whole world’s headed, whether you’re going to McDonald’s or Royal Farms or using your E-ZPass. It’s all heading towards electronic.”

With the toll collectors’ jobs being eliminated, agency officials have worked to find them other positions in the authority and its sister agencies, including the State Highway Administration and the Motor Vehicle Administration.

“They’re good at what they do, and we want to take care of them,” Ports said. “We’re making a real concerted effort so they can create a new career path for themselves.”

That effort has included town hall meetings with toll collectors to discuss the transition, shadowing opportunities, resume writing and job-interview training, said Percy Dangerfield, the Transportation Authority’s chief administrative officer.

When some pointed out that the state’s tuition-reimbursement program didn’t help them because they couldn’t afford to front the cost for college courses, officials set up a no-cost-up-front partnership with the University of Maryland Global Campus and Strayer University, allowing the programs to bill the state directly for the workers’ courses, he said.

Toll collectors’ customer-service skills make them perfect for front-facing roles in other agencies and industries, Dangerfield said.

“What we’re finding is that we have a ton of qualified, exciting employees,” he said. “We’ve been able to put them in other places to continue to help us with the agency.”

Keon Newsome, a 38-year-old Baltimore native who worked for five years at the Bay Bridge, is one of 21 toll collectors who have moved into new roles in state government.

Newsome is taking online classes for his master’s degree in business administration at Strayer and now works in human resources for the agency, helping other toll collectors in a program called “Ask Keon.” Many haven’t been to a job interview or worked an office in more than a decade and are understandably nervous about the transition, he said.

“I go around to different facilities and give toll collectors an opportunity to ask me questions,” he said. “ ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ‘What can I improve on?’ ‘I filled out this application for this [job] — what suggestions do you have?’ And I’m able to now say, ‘Hey, did you look at this?’ or ‘Did you try this?’ ”

Orefice has interviewed with the MVA and plans to set up another for a job at the MDTA as an E-ZPass customer service representative. She’s also considering applying to become a public-safety dispatcher.

“I like being a toll collector. I always did like this job,” she said. “I just hope for better and brighter things.”

Savings expected

With the toll workers’ jobs disappearing, the switch to all-cashless tolling is expected to save the transportation authority $10.6 million annually, beginning in the 2021 fiscal year, officials say — although they acknowledge there may be hiccups, such as the 22,000 speed warnings sent to Hatem Bridge drivers in error this fall.

As Maryland transitions away from human toll collectors, the state is also switching vendors for its electronic-tolling technology. The Board of Public Works split the 10-year contract for its third-generation tolling system into two separate contracts in 2018, following an industry trend, Ports said.

Virginia-based Kapsch TrafficCom USA won the $71.9 million contract to install, operate and maintain its E-ZPass sensors, and Nashville-based TransCore LP won the $200.4 million customer-service contract. Both contracts are paid with toll revenue.

“The front end is going to be where they’re doing all the electronic tolling and billing,” Ports said. “The back end would be more of the customer-service type stuff, call centers and all that.”

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has touted lower tolls and other adjustments to the state’s tolling systems intended to save drivers $28 million over five years. Those savings are largely a product of increased cashless tolling and more efficient operations, Ports said.

“We’re looking to save some money by going all-electronic,” he said.

— Baltimore Sun

Paul McCardell contributed to this report.