A milestone on the Pike as toll takers take their leave

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WEST STOCKBRIDGE >> Paul Wesolowski graduated from Lenox High School in 1971, and at age 18, he was hired as a toll taker by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

He's been here ever since.

But like hundreds of turnpike workers across the state, Friday was his last day as the Department of Transportation launches its All Electronic Tolling system.

"There is sadness," he said while working at the Exit 1 toll. "My wife asked me how I felt this morning. Sad, not really angry. I've been here for my whole professional life."

At midnight, Wesolowski would lock the doors to the toll office for good; all the employees were gone at 10 p.m., when manned tolling was formally phased out.

Wesolowski, an assistant manager, was to stay on for two more hours after the changeover to ensure things are running smoothly.

A total of 400 full- and part-time employees lost their jobs on Friday as the electronic tolls take over. According to the DOT, the top 200 employees with the longest service will be allowed to take early retirement. Their pensions will be calculated based on their years of service.

Other employees will be awarded severance stipends, also based on their length of service, according to a DOT spokesman. About a quarter of the employees will be relocated to other DOT jobs.

Turnpike employees can make anywhere from $22,000 to more than $85,000, according to the state's payroll database.

"It's a very good paying job, especially for Berkshire County," said Kevin McGinnis, of Pittsfield, a senior toll taker who has been working for the Turnpike Authority since 1987. "That's a big reason why the DOT is eliminating the jobs."

"I will miss this terribly," said Chris McConnell, of Lee, a senior toll collector who has been at it for 28 years. "I wasn't ready to retire. I'd have liked to stay on for a few more years."

"A lot of us have been here a while," Wesolowski said. "We have a lot of people with a lot of service. These are very good jobs."

The toll building and all the gates will be coming down in a few days, Wesolowski said. Also going is a massive coin counter at the rear of the main room that McConnell believes is older than the turnpike itself, which was completed in 1957.

"Still works," McConnell said.

At the rear of the building sits a large grey safe with a massive door that holds all the tolls collected daily, McConnell said.

Then there is the tunnel; employees call it the "Cold War tunnel."

Constructed in 1957, the narrow underground hallway looks the part. Heat and water pipes snake along the sides of the tunnel, which is dimly lit.

Lockers line the walls and there is a "mystery door" that leads to the men's room.

The tunnel enables toll workers to walk under the Turnpike, eliminating the need for treacherous crossing of several lanes of traffic to get to the tollbooths.

"It also serves as a tornado cellar," McGinnis said. "We've had to use it a couple times during tornado warnings."

There is a lot of camaraderie in the building, said McGinnis. The employees enjoy their jobs and, he said, enjoyed working together.

"It ends up being like a very tight-knit family," he said. "We all loved working here."

Wesolowski said a toll workers reunion has already been slated for sometime after Thanksgiving.

"I would be surprised if there weren't regular reunions," he said. "We've been talking about it today."

For Wesolowski, the job has been in his family for decades. His uncle, James Thompson, was one of the original toll takers when Exit 1 opened.

"He hired me when I was 18," Wesolowski said. "So it's come full circle. My uncle opened this building, and tonight, I'll be closing it."

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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