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Originally published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 10:18 AM

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Golden Gate tolling represents new wrinkle for rental-car tourists

Change means more charges at the car-rental desk, or other complicated arrangements. Driving your own car? They’ll bill you. Lessons may apply to toll-route travel across the country.

The Associated Press and The Seattle Times

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SAN FRANCISCO — Drivers approaching the majestic Golden Gate Bridge experienced something new on Wednesday — no human toll collectors.

The workers were removed in favor of cheaper and faster electronic transponders, similar to what’s used on Seattle’s Highway 520 bridge, and a camera system that photographs every license plate that comes through, mailing an invoice to each motorist who doesn’t prepay.

Those who fail to pay will receive warnings and could eventually have a hold placed on their vehicle registration at the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Unpaid invoices for out-of-state drivers will be turned over to a collection agency.

For travelers who’ve flown into San Francisco and rented a car, it presents a new challenge if you want to visit Marin County, north of the Golden Gate, home to Sausalito, Muir Woods National Monument and other attractions. Lessons learned may apply to other toll routes across the country.

If you’re driving a rental car, you can sign up with your rental company for an optional convenience fee that covers such tolls — the easiest solution. It means added cost on your rental, though: For example, in Northern California, Washington and British Columbia, Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s TollPass program adds up to $14.75 per rental ($2.95 per day of toll use) plus the toll fees. Some companies charge higher fees; ask when you rent.

Ignoring tolls isn’t an “out”; rental firms will usually charge your credit-card later, with fees.

Penny-pinching users of the Golden Gate can make a one-time payment by telephone, online (up to two days later) or at a cash-payment location, or open a limited-duration License Plate Account (more details here). If driving your own car, you can opt to wait for a bill in the mail. Good news: Unlike Seattle’s 520 bridge, there is no added fee if you are billed for the Golden Gate toll.

The $6 toll for cars is collected southbound only, with a $1 discount for transponder users.

In addition to saving money, the move is expected to improve traffic flow on the iconic span that opened in 1937.

On Tuesday, when their final shifts working on the bridge ended, the toll collectors said their goodbyes. They forced their mouths into smiles, hugged each other tightly and cried as they left their booths for the last time.

Some were angry and said their contribution — helping people with directions, giving a warm greeting to a regular commuter — will be missed.

“Our DNA is embedded in this bridge ... we are part of it,” said Jacquie Dean, a career toll collector who had worked on the burnt-orange span for 18 years before her last shift Tuesday. “Some customers still want to pay cash. They don’t want to be tracked and photographed.”

Many drivers have switched to the FasTrak devices that attach to a car’s windshield.

Nine toll takers will lose their jobs. Another 17 have either been placed in other district positions or have retired, said Mary Currie, spokeswoman for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

“It was a difficult decision and involved the loss of some very dedicated staff,” Currie said.

Brian J. Cantwell of The Seattle Times contributed to this report.

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