Happy birthday, Florida’s Turnpike.
You were born on Jan. 25, 1957.
You may be a little old now, but you certainly keep up with the times.
At first, drivers called you the Sunshine State Parkway. They stopped for a burger at the Hot Shoppes plaza restaurants. Humans handed out toll tickets, which were paid to other humans.
The turnpike has changed through the years, becoming more of a commuter road (except for all of us who still head to Disney World every summer). The plazas have turned into food courts with brands you find on any major intersection. The gas prices are now competitive. And tolls are now automated through SunPass.
So, let’s take a trip down memory lane and into the Miami Herald archives for a look back at Florida’s Turnpike through the years.
The 50th ANNIVERSARY
Published Jan. 26, 2007
Fifty years ago Thursday, ranchers on horseback arrived at the Golden Glades for a ribbon-cutting to mark the opening of a modern superhighway.
For the first time, truckers and tourists alike could drive the entire 110 miles from Miami to Fort Pierce without encountering a traffic light, shaving at least 90 minutes and more than 100 signals off the same trip along U.S. Highway 1.
In its inaugural year, the Sunshine State Parkway supported 13,000 vehicles a day and generated more than $3 million in tolls.
A half-century later, the parkway has morphed into Florida’s Turnpike: a 460-mile network of urban expressways and rural toll roads from Wildwood to the Florida Keys, used by 2.1 million vehicles a day.
The turnpike has become a financial juggernaut, generating $630 million in toll revenue annually, and a major cog in the Florida growth machine.
“The people were going to come anyway. So where would we be without the turnpike?” said Orlando attorney Charles Gray, who chaired the Turnpike Authority in the mid-1960s and led the construction of a crucial interchange at Interstate 4.
Shortly after viewing that interchange from the air, Walt Disney decided to build his new theme park on 43 square miles of nearby swamp and pastures.
Without the turnpike, the Legislature in 1990 wouldn’t have had the resources to rescue the Sawgrass Expressway from the scandal-plagued Broward County Expressway Authority.
The Homestead Extension that opened in 1974 became the a western beltway for Dade County, opening up hundreds of thousands of acres for far-flung suburbs from Country Walk and the Hammocks to Doral and Miami Lakes.
The extension continues to fuel the Southwest Miami-Dade boom today. Average daily traffic on the extension is anticipated to swell from 160,000 vehicles a day to nearly 275,000 by 2019.
The vision for Florida’s Turnpike started in the late 1940s, when a politically active Miami accountant, Charlie Costar, became enthralled with the sleek new limited-access highways in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“I can remember it like it was dinner last night,” his son, Charlie Costar Jr., said Thursday after a turnpike anniversary celebration in Pompano Beach. “I was 13 at the time, and he’d come back from a business trip, and he’d tell me, ‘Son, someday we’ll be able to drive all the way from Miam-uh to Maine without hitting a traffic light.’ “
The elder Costar, who knew his way around Tallahassee, convinced the Legislature to create an authority that would build Florida’s first limited-access highway backed by tolls.
Costar never lived to see it open, dying of cancer in 1955 at age 53.
The first 110-mile segment, known to many old-timers as the Bobtail, was built in just 18 months at a cost of $62 million by a tough-as-nails former Fort Lauderdale mayor, Col. Thomas Manuel.
On the Sunday before it opened, The Miami Herald published a 16-page special section lauding the engineers and politicians who made the state’s first superhighway possible.
An article reprinted from Changing Times magazine, How to DRIVE on a Superhighway, offered sage advice: “don’t look at maps, toll tickets or the scenery”; at 70 mph, drivers should stay at least 50 yards behind the next vehicle; and “never stop on the highway.”
Families cruised “all the way out to the country” — the Golden Glades interchange was rural in those days -- for the novelty of joyriding from the original zero mile marker on that opening day, Jan. 25, 1957.
The second section, from Fort Pierce to Wildwood, opened in 1964, followed 10 years later by the Homestead Extension.
By the late 1970s, growth had subsumed most of the turnpike corridor in western Miami-Dade and central Broward.
The turnpike had become a major urban expressway, carrying more commuters than truckers or tourists, and the old fare cards were replaced by coin-toss baskets in the urban areas.
By the mid-1980s, with the original turnpike bonds paid off, the Legislature debated whether to remove the tolls entirely.
Instead, in 1990, it voted to not only maintain the tolls but to use the extra revenue to widen the turnpike in South Florida, buy the troubled Sawgrass in Broward and build more than 150 miles of new toll roads in Central Florida.
Florida has not built a new limited-access highway without tolls since 1992.
Amid dozens of employees dressed in 1957 fashions and a handful of vintage Thunderbirds and Corvettes, turnpike executive director Jim Ely used Thursday’s anniversary to honor the past and look toward a future driven by three T’s: more toll roads, made more efficient by emerging technology, and adapting the system to be more accessible for mass-transit express buses.
Asked whether his father could have foreseen what his turnpike dream had become, Charlie Costar Jr. choked back tears.
“My dad had a dream, but he couldn’t have imagined this. No way. Never in a million years.”
A TOLL ON THE TURNPIKE WORKERS
Published Feb. 18, 2011
They met in the fall of 1988, as he stopped at her booth at the Florida’s Turnpike Homestead plaza to pay a toll.
He was handsome and 40-something, with enchanting blue eyes. And he drove a yellow Cadillac.
She was a toll collector and a mother of three who had been graciously accepting money from drivers along the southern stretch of the turnpike since the mid-’70s, a three-decade career that comes to an end when the turnpike goes cash- and toll collector-free on Saturday.
“He saw this ring on my left hand and said ‘your husband is a very lucky man,’ and without thinking I just said, ‘he used to be,’ “ says Priscilla Gatrell, 62 . “I was divorced; the ring was given to me. He handed me the toll money and I thought, case closed.’‘
Not so fast. The driver was smitten, returning to the booth that day to offer his phone number. Priscilla took it. The next day he showed up with a single rose and for the next week, the guy in the Cadillac wooed her with flowers and exact change.
It was the unlikely beginning of a courtship that ended with a spring wedding 21 years ago.
“Over the years, I have met so many people,” Gatrell said this week during a break on her typical sunrise shift. “There have been so many memorable experiences - the best, of course, is meeting my husband.”
The Gatrell union is just one of the life experiences that the toll collectors on the front lines of the roadways are recalling on the last days before the Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike converts to a cashless system on the last leg of the turnpike, 47 miles stretching from Florida City to Miramar. The section opened in 1974.
Since the original 110-mile ribbon of the turnpike opened in 1957, workers have manned the tiny booths 24 hours a day to accept tolls -the last dozen years wearing those iconic retro Florida shirts.
But come Saturday, the toll booths of the Homestead Extension will become remnants of old Florida. Eventually, all 37 plazas will become electronic gateways, with tolls collected by SunPasses or the newer toll-by-plate system in which drivers are mailed their bills.
In all, 270 positions were affected; so far, about 60 workers have been placed in other jobs with 20 more choosing to retire or return to school. The move is the first step in the broader multiyear effort to convert the state’s turnpike system to a cashless toll road that is both safer and more efficient.
“The extension is commuter-oriented and averages about 110,000 vehicles a day,” says Sonyha Rodriguez-Miller, a turnpike spokeswoman. “We found the toll plazas are an impediment to traffic and there is so much potential for crashes as driver switch lanes at the last minute.”
But for many of the men and women who have collected the tolls along the extension, this marks the end of a livelihood lost to technology and the evolution of Florida’s roadways.
Every day, the collectors with wide-angle views - in uniforms that over the years have conjured the police officer, the bus driver and now the classic tourist — dispense change, receipts, directions, greetings and bits of advice. They have witnessed couples fighting and couples making up, directed tourists headed to the Keys, heard every genre of music blaring and taken tolls from the occasional celebrity.
Elaine Mitchell, who supervised and collected tolls for more than 20 years, says the toll booth experience opens up a window into drivers of every stripe, from the perpetually cranky to those that offer serenades with their money.
“Some drivers give you a quarter and they are gone. Others you remember forever. Some are really nice; others are rowdy,” says Mitchell, of Miami, who works at the 120th Street Plaza. Mitchell said nighttime would bring the most interesting drivers.
“There was lots of weird stuff. You have people who were ...” she pauses and searches for the most delicate word. “They were intimate. And sometimes a car full of people partying would come through and invite me to go with them.”
It was a more gentle invitation that launched Priscilla and Douglas Gatrell’s relationship. After a chance meeting when Priscilla was sitting in for another toll collector, Douglas, now 67, circled back to see her again.
“Douglas was so mannerable and so handsome. When he gave me his phone number, I shoved the sheet in my pocket. When I got home, I threw it away,” she says.
“But while I was on my second job, I called my daughter and told her to get it out of the trash.”
She called him that same night. Eight months later, the Gatrells were married.
THE HOT SHIRTS
Published Aug. 12, 2001
Those funky tropical shirts the Florida toll-takers are wearing have become a hot item.
At least for out-of-state tourists and one bowling team. The state, which started selling the shirts to the public in July, has run out of them. You can still order them by phone for $39.99 apiece plus shipping, but you won’t get them until fall when the next batch is expected to be ready.
The short-sleeve, button-down cotton polyester shirts have a cream-colored background with palm trees, pink flamingos and other cartoonish illustrations representing various parts of the state.
About 2,000 shirts have been sold.
The shirt has been the required uniform of all Florida toll-takers since 1999. The state was looking for a friendlier image to project to visitors whose first contact with Florida is the tollbooth.
The shirt has brought more attention to the toll workers, who aren’t used to getting compliments on the job.
“A lot of customers are fascinated by the shirts,” said Dorcas Jackson, toll operator at the Cypress Creek Road exit on the turnpike. “Daily, some drive through and say, ‘We love your shirt,’ and they never stop saying that.”
Such feedback sparked the idea to sell the shirts in gift shops at service plazas on Florida’s Turnpike, starting with one in Orlando. They sold out in one weekend.
Michael Washburn, Florida Department of Transportation spokesman, said he’s gotten inquiries about the shirts from a bowling team, veterans groups, national radio shows, and a British newspaper.
Weather forecaster Tony Perkins even wore one on a Good Morning America segment, Washburn said.
Out-of-state travelers find them charming.
“It was unusual,” Jacqueline Clayton, 49, of Ohio said at the Pompano Beach service plaza on the turnpike. “It’s not your typical uniform, it gives Florida that funky town feeling.”
“It covers the whole state,” said Nena Gang of the association. “It’s got Yee Haw Junction, Boca Raton, Alligator Alley. This is a great shirt.”
Still, the garment has been tainted by controversy.
Some of the shirts, designed and manufactured by Angelica Corp., a St. Louis uniform company, were assembled in a Costa Rican plant that paid 15 percent of its workers a minimum wage of $1.20 an hour, said Charles Molloy, president of Angelica’s Image Apparel line.
But most of the shirts are made in America, Molloy said, estimating that about 40 percent of them are made in Costa Rica.
“The whole idea is to help improve the standard of living by providing an industry that provides jobs,” Molloy said.
Washburn said DOT officials are not required to inquire about the products’ origins.
“Only 15 to 20 percent were paid minimum wage,” said Steve Homan, spokesman for DOT’s Central Florida district. “Costa Rica is a far cry from Honduras or Indonesia where people make like 10 cents a day.”
One dollar from the sale of each shirt will go to the Florida State Employees’ Charitable Campaign, which allows state employees, through the United Way, to contribute to nonprofit organizations in their communities. The rest of the profit goes to HMSHost, which operates the turnpike service plazas, Washburn said.
The shirts should be in stock in gift shops on turnpike service plazas from Orlando to Broward by fall.