Michael Bent has worked at the Ga. 400 toll plaza for 17 years.
Michael Bent has worked at the Ga. 400 toll plaza for 17 years.

The constant rain of quarters is due to end Friday.

The falling coins really did sound a bit like rain down in the tunnel beneath the Ga. 400 Toll Plaza. Coins drivers drop into the toll-collection baskets on the road above rolled down metal tubes and then thumped into locked metal boxes placed at various spots along the 600-foot-long, concrete-walled tunnel.

“During rush hour, it gets quite intense,” said Bert Brantley, deputy executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority, who wore a reflective orange vest reading “Tolls end Nov. 22” as he led a media tour of the facility on Nov. 19.

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The rain of quarters, dimes and nickels has yielded tens of millions of dollars over the 20 years the tolls have been collected on Ga. 400. In recent years, the toll booths have collected about $60,000 a day, half of that in coins, Brantley said

Landmarks come and go in Atlanta. We’re a burn-it-down-and-build-it-again kind of place. We save little. Take Turner Field, the ballpark the Olympics gave to Atlanta baseball. Now there’s a very public plan to move the Atlanta Braves to a new suburban home and to tear down The Ted in a couple of years.

There will be an outcry, no doubt, and discussions about how to save a brick-and-steel ball field and keep the Braves downtown. But if the Braves do move, we metro Atlantans will get used to that. We always do.

We’re not the kind of people who need our ballplayers to work the same hallowed ground where sports giants of past made their marks. We leave that to Boston or Chicago or New York. Here, once Turner Field opened, I couldn’t wait until the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was blown up. It blocked the view of downtown skyscrapers from seats in Turner Field.

The Ga. 400 Toll Plaza isn’t on the same level as Turner Field, of course. Still, it’s a landmark all its own. For 20 years, north metro drivers have tossed quarters into those collection baskets as they fought traffic to and from Buckhead. It’s a place we’ve all gotten used to. We know it’s there and expect to stop and smile at the cashier as we fumble for change. It’s part of our routine.

Soon, it won’t even be a wide spot in the road.

Coins paid in tolls on Ga. 400 fall into locked boxes in this service tunnel beneath the  toll plaza.
Coins paid in tolls on Ga. 400 fall into locked boxes in this service tunnel beneath the toll plaza.

A few will even miss it. Michael Bent will. He’s worked at the plaza for 17 years. “It’s very sad,” he said, a memory of his native Jamaica accenting his words. “It’s been here all these years. It’s like home here.”

He started as a cashier. And don’t call them “toll collectors,” SRTA folks are quick to say. Toll roads in other towns may have toll collectors, but metro Atlanta’s don’t.  They don’t collect tolls. Instead, they make change.  You give them a dollar and they give you back 50 cents and throw the other 50 cents into the basket. After a stint as a cashier, Bent moved up to the tower overlooking the plaza, where workers monitor the computer screens show a count of every single coin going into the collection baskets.

Soon, metro toll roads won’t have any cashiers at all. The system will be fully automated. Then, there will be few, if any, people left to tell the stories of the tollways. And it’s the stories that make places come alive and keeps them alive long after they’re gone. It’s the tales that matter.

The Ga. 400 Tollway Plaza leaves behind its share of tales. The cashiers tell them. The people who sat for hours in the booths, making change, remember the regular drivers, the ones who passed by and the ones they grew to recognize and sort of got to know. Some of the drivers knew them, too. Some even brought snacks for their favorite cashiers or asked about them when they were sick or changed shifts.

The toll plaza workers remember when people died there in terrible wrecks. Bent recalls that a baby was born at the plaza in an ambulance summoned when the parents stopped at the toll lane and said they’d never make it to the hospital.

Cashier Kaz Jones of Sandy Springs remembers the women in cars who wanted his number. He even went out with a couple of them, he admits, grinning sheepishly.

And then there are the scandalous stories. Some may involve alcohol. Cashier Roslyn McDonald remembers when, late one weekend night, a man jumped from a car and ran down Ga. 400, removing his clothes as he ran. The driver paid the toll, drove off and collected the naked streaker a few hundred yards down the road.

Jones recalls a night when a female driver grinned mischievously at him, then gestured toward the back seat. There, he saw two women wearing nothing at all but their smiles. “You never know what you’re going to see down here,” Jones said.

Soon enough, there’ll be next to nothing left to see. The plaza will be gone. The tunnel will remain, as a way to route utility lines beneath the road. But the sound of falling quarters is ending.

Kaz Jones checks out one of the toll collection booths at the Ga. 400 Toll Plaza, where he worked as a cashier.
Kaz Jones checks out one of the toll collection booths at the Ga. 400 Toll Plaza, where he worked as a cashier.

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.