- Associated Press - Saturday, October 15, 2016

NORTH KEY LARGO, Fla. (AP) - Ken Murray has worked the toll booth on Card Sound Road for 25 years. He’s cut a familiar figure to the regular customers who commute from the Florida Keys into the mainland, and vice-versa. He’s known by many as “Cowboy” because of the hat he wears every day, and he always wears a daishiki, a shirt made from colorful African fabric.

On a recent Saturday morning, he stood side by side in the small booth next to co-worker Vickie Katzenstein as they collected the $1 fare from each lane of the road. Traffic streamed through at a slow, comfortable pace, leaving some time to chat with travelers. One regular, who lives at the Ocean Reef Club and was on her way to her job in Homestead, asked Murray about his avocados. He often brings in produce from his farm in Homestead to give away to his customers and even hands out homemade marmalade - this week, it’s a starfruit and habanero blend.

Another man stopped to complain that he had planned to play golf in Homestead that morning, but when he got to the course in the Redland, he was barred from entry due to a tournament. He had to turn around and go back to the Keys. Murray frowned and shook his head to commiserate with the man, but his face soon returned to its usual expression: a big smile. He loves his job.

“I try to make my job as fun as possible,” he said. “I have interactions with people. We’re not high volume, like the New Jersey Turnpike. But we’re getting to the point where when I talk to somebody, other people get offended. People honk their horns. We don’t try to hold up traffic, but when somebody asks a personal question, I can’t just blow them off.”

The traffic to the Keys is increasing, and it’s one of the many reasons why Monroe County, which owns the nearby bridge and the southern portion of the road that includes the toll booth, is taking steps to convert the toll collecting into an automated transponder system. The road is one of two entry points from the mainland into the Florida Keys, the other being U.S. 1, locally known as the 18-Mile Stretch.

“They told us Aug. 1st (of 2017) would be our last day,” Murray said, shaking his head a little once more.

Judith Clarke, director of engineering services for the county, said converting the toll collecting is simply a practical decision. She acknowledged that the county would save some money by not having to employ the staff. In 2015, $330,000 was spent on toll collector wages and benefits for four full-time and five part-time employees.

But she pointed out that the county would still have to employ maintenance workers for the new infrastructure, and that there are other arguments for the conversion that are not just financial. She explained that when traffic backs up at the toll booth, it becomes a safety issue.

The steep bridge that drivers go up from the Key Largo side as they approach the toll booth makes it hard to see the line of traffic on the other side, raising the potential for accidents. So workers frequently have to wave vehicles through the toll both when traffic backs up. Also, there’s the auto emissions that’s created from the traffic, Clarke said.

Plus, the system would just be more efficient. Noting that raising the $1 fare is in the near future, Clarke said the county could raise it incrementally via the transponders, say, to $1.02, an amount that would be time-consuming for constantly making change.

The installation of the equipment will start in August and should take five months, so the new transponder system should be fully functional by December 2017.

“It’s one of the last manned tolls in the state from what I understand,” Clarke said, explaining that some people have told her they feel sad about the electronic conversion.

“I live in Key West. I don’t go through there. It’s been interesting. The people said, ‘Oh, we love our toll collectors,’” she said. But the county is holding fast to its decision to convert. “With the traffic levels were getting, it’s not really making sense to hold off automating.”

Murray said he has accepted his fate.

“I’m disappointed I’m leaving,” he said. “I don’t want to go. I love my job. It is what it is. But I will move on. Hopefully, I can find another job with the county, so I can keep up with retirement. In three years, I can retire at 62.”

But the job has given him a lot, much more than simply wages earned. He has met not just one, but two wives through the toll booth.

He and his first wife moved to Key Largo in 1991, seeking a warm climate for her health. She died in 1995 due to heart issues. At the time, Murray was working the night shift at the toll booth, which he did for 13 years. He found that the shift was perfect for raising his two young children as a single father.

Soon, he met his second wife through the toll booth.

“She had flirted with me for three years, but I wasn’t ready,” he said. “We dated for a few years, then we got married in 2004.”

In 2007 they learned she had pancreatic cancer, and she was gone within six weeks of the diagnosis.

But Murray picked himself up again and continued on. And he caught the eye of another regular customer: a redhead named Patti, who was a daily commuter from her home in Homestead to her job at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter on Plantation Key.

“I met Ken in 2010,” said Patti Murray, who noticed one day that he was wearing an orange shirt.

“That was the dance that started,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, orange is my favorite color.’ And I noticed he had a beautiful smile. And we started playing this little game with each other.”

Each day, they would talk a few seconds as she paid her toll.

“And one time he said, ‘So is it a Miss or a Mrs.?” My brain completely froze. And I said, ‘Oh, I’m a Miss.”

A few days later, she gave him her phone number along with the dollar bill.

“He called me that night, and we’ve been together ever since,” she said.

The couple married in 2014 and live together on that farm in Homestead with the avocados.

“It’s really sad,” Patti Murray said about the toll booth conversion. “People actually look forward to pulling up to the booth. And people say they love to hear the banter. I really think putting up SunPass is going to take more human out of this world. Humans are being thrown on the side, is the way I feel about it.”

___

Information from: The Key West (Fla.) Citizen, http://www.keysnews.com

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