Some Observations From The Road

We were on the great American highway a bit this weekend, traveling to and from a wedding in Pennsylvania. Here are some observations from the first big road trip we’ve taken this year.

• Lots of Americans are on the road this summer. Traffic was heavy on Friday, when we drove to the wedding, and Sunday, when we returned. It was even bumper-to-bumper in Maine. And the traffic wasn’t all semis or FedEx or Amazon delivery trucks, either: we saw lots of passenger vehicles, including many campers and RVs. (You tend to notice those big boys slowing down traffic on the hills.) That meant some long lines and frustrating stop-and-go traffic when we hit road work areas on Friday, so on Sunday we left early enough to breeze through those areas in light traffic. If you’re taking a road trip this weekend, see if you can identify highway work areas and time your travel accordingly.

Gas prices are definitely up, but there is a lot of variance in prices. In case you hadn’t noticed, the price of gas has increased. In some places, the price of a gallon of regular unleaded was more than twice as much as it was last fall when we drove from Maine to Columbus. But there’s a big range in prices as you roll from one area to another, whether due to supply problems in some areas, local taxes, or price wars. If you pay attention and are willing to stop before your fuel indicator hits “E,” you can save a few bucks.

Toll booths are an endangered species. Highways in the eastern U.S. used to be riddled with toll booths, and the long lines they caused. Now the toll booths are going the way of the dodo, and many of the toll booths we passed are in the process of being decommissioned and torn down. It’s not because states and highway administrations have given up on tolls, however: they’re just charging through EZ Pass and license plate photos followed by a mailed bills. Privacy advocates must hate this development, because it means detailed photographic records of American travel are being compiled and stored, somewhere. I’m not quite sure how the photo-and-bill approach makes economic sense, given the cost of postage, but I’m sure the tolls have been adjusted to reflect that. And in the meantime, states have cut toll collector salaries and related costs from their payrolls.

•. Gas station coffee quality continues to improve. If, like us, you like to hit the road early, here’s some good news: the coffee quality at the random gas stations you find along the highway is vastly improved. In the past, gas station coffee was either swill that tasted like it was dredged from the local muddy river or a thick, black, metallic-tasting sludge that had boiled down at the bottom of a pot that was kept on the burner too long. Now you can actually get a quality cup of coffee pretty much wherever you go, and all kinds of food and snacks, besides. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a service station with actual service bays—they’ve all been glassed in and converted to roadside convenience stores. You won’t be able to get your tire fixed or your radiator checked by a guy named Hank wearing a grease-stained shirt, but you can enjoy multiple coffee options and hazelnut- or french vanilla-flavored creamer.

Masked Driving

We took a long drive this week.  It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well.  In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.

b3effd_ltptolls020411It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep.  Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring.  As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend.  In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars.  By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between.  The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction.  As a result, we made excellent time.

The lack of traffic is one reason why the Cannonball Run record — the wholly illegal effort to make the fastest drive from the Red Ball garage in New York City to the Portofini Inn in Redondo Beach, California — has been broken repeatedly during this national shutdown period.  The new record now stands at less than 26 hours, which is mind-boggling and makes you wonder about the top speed reached as the cars zipped through the wide-open western states.

But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus.  As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch.  Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle.  You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities.  (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.)  At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.

You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through.  Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her.  It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology.  For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.

In all, a very memorable trip.  The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.

The Chicago Skyway Blows

The only bad thing about our short trip to Chicago this weekend was our use of the Chicago Skyway.  Coming or going, it blows.  I thought the inaccurately named Dan Ryan “Expressway” was bad — so bad that if I were Dan Ryan, I’d ask that my name be removed from that sorry, always-under-repair stretch of Chicago roadway — but I would take the Dan Ryan 10 times out of 10 against the Chicago Skyway.

IMG_2373For the uninitiated, the Chicago Skyway and the Dan Ryan Expressway are the two ways to get to Chicago from northern Indiana.  The Dan Ryan is a freeway, the Chicago Skyway is a toll road.  You’d think that would mean that the Skyway would be a better driving experience — better road, faster, and so forth.  That makes sense . . . but it would be wrong.  In fact, the road conditions from Chicago to the I-65 turnoff just east of Gary are miserable.  And, because you have to go through three separate toll stops, it’s clearly slower even than the orange barrel-filled Dan Ryan Expressway — to say nothing of costing almost $8.  What does the money go for?  Beats me!  My shock absorbers would say it’s certainly not used for road repair.

It’s also obviously not used for toll booth employees or upkeep.  Today we were infuriated because only two of six toll booths at the final turnoff were taking cash or credit card.  Three lanes were reserved for E-ZPass — which is irritating in its own right — and one was closed for unknown reasons.  Of course, there were long lines in the two cash/credit lanes, which were made all the worse by the fact that rather than a toll booth employee, we had to pay a machine, and the machine didn’t tell you how much you owed.  It was scrambled, and the screen showed nothing but gibberish, like this:  ###%^**##.  So, what to pay?  Not surprisingly, it took us forever to get past the toll booth.  It was like some satanic trick:  just as we were celebrating escaping the Chicago Skyway once and for all, a final bit of ineptitude trapped us in toll booth hell.  What idiot allowed this to happen?

If Chicago wants to improve its image, the Skyway would be a good place to start.

Our One-Cent Bill From The Great White North

Guess what?  American bureaucracies aren’t the only ones that are ridiculous.

IMG_3407Last October I went to Lake Temagami in northern Ontario, Canada for a wonderful few days of fishing.  To get there, I drove on the Express Toll Route.  Rather than simply paying the toll as you pass through, the ETR takes a picture of your car, figures out where you live, and then sends you a bill.

A few weeks after my trip ended, I received a bill.  We paid it in full.  Then, some time later, we got another bill — for four cents.  Why the four-cent differential?  I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the U.S. dollar-Canadian dollar exchange rate might be responsible.  In any case, we wrote a check for 4 cents and sent that off.  Obviously, the cost of postage and the cost of processing the check on both ends far outstripped the 4-cent payment.  But, so be it!  We are interested in maintaining friendly relations with our Neighbors to the North, and if I ever am invited back to Lake Temagami I don’t want to be hauled away as a scofflaw and tossed into debtors’ prison by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Then we received the bill above, demanding a balance due of . . . one cent.  One cent!  I’m blaming the exchange rate again, because the bottom of the bill says, under “amount paid,” “Canadian funds.”  Of course, there is no way I can write a check on my American bank for one cent, Canadian.  The letter specifically says that I can’t send cash.  And if you think I’m going to risk giving my credit card information, on-line, to bureaucrats who are trying to chase down people who have paid, in full, twice already, you’ve got another think coming.  So, my only choice is to write a check for 5 cents, American, and hope that it accounts for the exchange rate and is finally accepted as payment in full by the ETR collectors.

I’ve never really thought much about toll booths before, or fully appreciated the schmoes working inside.  Now, I do.  The next time I toss 75 cents into the collection bin, I’ll relish that I can simply drive on, free from care that I’ve just become mired forever in an endless sea of red tape.