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Scofflaws and Skunks

An average morning for a toll cop.

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"Mine is not to reason why," Rollston replies. "I don't know why there's a toll there. I just know that there's a toll there." And if your nickel and dime don't clink into the basket, he's coming after you.

(The tolls, RMA spokesman Meade Daffron would like to make clear, are not a cruel whim. They pay for the maintenance of the Powhite Parkway and Downtown Expressway.)

Drivers behave well at toll plazas, for the most part. There, toll-takers provide change for the coinless, and under their watchful eyes people are less likely to cheat.

The unmanned, gateless tolled entrances to the Powhite and the Expressway, however, invite motorists to blithely sail through. "People get in the habit of ignoring them," Rollston says. Why not? No one's watching.

Except Rollston. At 7:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, he pulls up to the Douglasdale Road entrance, which is seldom used except during the morning rush hour. He tosses in a few coins to make sure the collection machine is working properly. It swallows them smoothly and the green "Thank You" light flicks on. No excuses there. Rollston then drives a short way down the ramp and carefully parks his patrol car just around the curve.

He steps out of his car into the chill air and stands against the rear bumper. Wearing an orange safety vest that blares "POLICE," he seems an obvious warning to the drivers passing through. They can't see him because of the curve, Rollston says. But he can see them quite well indeed.

A truck trundles through, then a few cars, all dutifully paying the 15-cent toll. When a young woman in a Honda rolls through, a yellow light flashes and buzzes, indicating she didn't pay. Rollston casually steps into the road and motions her to stop.

"I didn't have change," she says plaintively. That's what they all say.

Rollston points out that her inspection is expired, explains that the summons he's writing is not a moving violation and advises her to get a SmartTag, the electronic device that automatically pays tolls. The driver sucks on a soda, appearing unconcerned.

"Be careful when you pull out, please," Rollston says. No sooner has she left than BUZZ — the yellow light flashes again, this time triggered by a 23-year-old man in another Honda. After Rollston gives him a ticket, a burgundy van slides through. BUZZ. "You just can't stop them all," Rollston says.

"All right," he says a moment later. "We could stay here all day, but we wouldn't get anything else done."

Rollston and the three other police officers on the RMA force spend their shifts patrolling a very limited domain: four parking decks in Carytown and downtown, The Diamond, Main Street Station, the Nickel Bridge and about nine miles of the Powhite Parkway and Downtown Expressway, from Chippenham Parkway to the I-95 interchange.

For seven and a half hours, Monday through Friday on alternate weeks, Rollston travels between these points, often racking up more than 100 miles on his marked Crown Victoria. Passing the same territory again and again, as predictable as the endlessly scrolling palm trees in an old arcade driving game, seems interminably dull. It's not, Rollston says, because there's "always something to do."

This Wednesday morning, the first challenges are a flaming beer truck, a smashed skunk (a fragrant task that luckily for him falls to VDOT), a car abandoned on the shoulder and a malfunctioning alarm system at the Nickel Bridge toll plaza.

Rollston carries a gun and has full policing powers, but he mostly leaves crime fighting to Richmond Police. He has, however, arrested three people for breaking into cars in RMA parking decks; investigated a couple having sex on a deck roof (while being watched by an audience behind the mirrored windows of the neighboring office building); and stopped one driver of a stolen car, who turned out to have marijuana in his sock.

Nothing fazes Rollston, who tackles all these incidents with gentle humor. Raised in Richmond, he worked at the Philip Morris plant after high school. He soon tired of toting cigarette trays and monitoring rolling machines, and in 1970 joined the Richmond Police. He patrolled the 2nd and 3rd precincts, in the West End and on the South Side, trained new officers, and for three years was the acting captain in charge of the city on the midnight shift. "I love midnights," he says.

After 30 years, Rollston retired. After three weeks, he got antsy. His wife, Pat, didn't want him around the house all the time, and his son, Matt, was grown — he's now a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division, in Iraq. A friend from the force suggested Rollston apply for a job with the RMA, and he found himself uniquely suited to the work.

He issues tickets with equanimity. Some people get upset, "but they pretty much don't take any action," Rollston says. "They just talk loud." Women sometimes beg on their beloved's behalf. "It's his birthday," one protested. Rollston gave the guy a summons anyway. "But I was nice about it," he says with a grin. "I didn't say 'Happy Birthday' or anything."

Flirting has no effect on the impassive Rollston. Nor does crying. He does, however, carry out his duties with a certain chivalry. When he sees a woman or an older driver stranded with a flat tire, he gallantly offers to change it for them. "If it's a healthy male, I'm not going to help him," he says, although he's happy to provide a wrench or a jack.

He relishes going to court, where he gets to see his old police and clerk friends. "I love to testify," he says. "It's like a stage."

Only problem is, he hates coins. They're dirty, he says. "You constantly have to wash your hands." Sometimes he finds things far filthier in the toll collection machines: "chicken legs, bones, candy bars — like half of a Milky Way — sodas." He flings away a quartz pebble someone's contributed to a toll basket downtown.

Rollston also picks up coins that miss the basket and tosses them in. Occasionally, people stop to scoop rejected coins out of the return or pick them up from the pavement. This, he says, is technically larceny.

A grandfather used to take his two grandsons to one of the plazas to do just that. "Oh, we're going down to pick up the money," the boys chirped to Rollston. He took the grandfather aside and told him he was teaching the kids how to steal.

Rollston would rather give warnings than summonses, he says. "We're not ticket-happy," he says. The RMA never even collects the fines levied on toll runners. Although the fine is generally $30, court costs total about $55. The state keeps that revenue.

He may not be ticket-happy, but Rollston is happy to give you a ticket. As he waits at an expressway exit onto Canal Street, a man in a red Cavalier blurs through the tollbooth. He's so startled to see Rollston pull out behind him that he runs the red light at Belvidere before he stops.

As Rollston writes him a summons for the toll — he's lenient on the light — driver Robert Edwards smokes a cigarette. "It's no problem," he says. "I mean, hey, I made a mistake. … It's embarrassing. But hey, it's the law."

Edwards is driving his father's car, he says, and he forgot it didn't have a SmartTag, like his own two vehicles do. "That's why I didn't even think about one," he says of the toll.

Rollston waves him on. One more toll runner, one more story. That's all he deals with, he says: "Just different people with different excuses for the same problems." S



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