May 22, 2006

For Whom the Tolls *Cha-ching!*

Interesting move.
I don't know if it's gotten much coverage in the far-flung neighborhoods and municipalities of greater Chicagoland, but they are still doing road work on the Southland Tollway. Literally, now, not hyperbole: They have been working on that stretch of highway since the last century.

Ahh, the last century... How I long for those halcyon days of yesteryear when the President was putting the wood to willing, starry-eyed interns instead of the Constitution itself; when the Bishop Ford was known as the Calumet; when the relative few who owned SUVs actually did have serious thoughts of climbing a mountain somewhere; when we still had a healthy tension between the three branches of the Federal government; when Kerry Wood had yet to blow his arm out for the first time; and when driving the Southland Tollway didn't mean seemingly endless miles of orange cones and flashing lights and narrow lanes and ludicrously low posted speeds and the utter scam of its existence was a largely innocuous one.

The Southland Tollway is that five-mile stretch of the Tri-State that merges with Interstate 80 --just east of Kedzie Avenue in Hazel Crest-- and runs east to its junction with the Calu... uh, Bishop Ford. This relatively short section of highway carries two numbers, I-80 and I-294. The second shield is superfluous; it's there for jurisdictional reasons. It give the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority an excuse to put a toll plaza on Interstate 80 and collect duty from travelers seeking only to sneak past Chicago on their way from Indiana to Iowa or vice versa-- people who have no interest in becoming entangled in the busy ant-colony traffic patterns of the sprawling city by the lake.

It is, as I said, a scam. A decade ago, it was a minor one: Thirty cents for cars and ninety cents for big rigs. (This was back in the days before somebody invented the idea of gouging trucking companies for more than three times as much as cars.) Nowadays, the penalty for playing is sixty-five cents for cars, an increase of 117%, and three dollars for trucks... which is a whopping 233% increase. Meanwhile, the number of lanes has decreased by one-third and the posted speed is down 18%. Of course, with all the added congestion, the actual decrease in speed is virtually incalculable.

Congestion, in fact, might be the biggest reason for the rate hike. Raise the price, cause avoidance. It hasn't worked. Many people who travel the Southland Tollway either don't know of an alternate route or, in the case of the trucks, aren't allowed to use one. The congestion has gotten so bad that ISTHA has had to try something new: Selectively lowering the tolls.

Interesting move.
In an effort to reduce the number of smoking, choking, belching behemoths who use the Southland during the day, ISTHA has reduced the toll to $2.25 for big rigs that use it at night. Specifically, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. It's a relatively new policy, less than a month old. As far as I know, they haven't done a real good job of getting the word out, either. Probably, they are afraid of a certain backlash either from ordinary motorists who routinely drive at night or from trucking companies that are largely unable to.

Then, too, there's the uneasy fact that such a time-oriented discount flies in the face of the principle of Federal Motor-carrier hours-of-service regulations. Technically, the so-called "log book" regs merely tell a truck driver when he can't drive. Their practical effect, however, is to also tell a driver when he must drive... or risk not getting any work done. Either way, encouraging an interstate trucker to use a certain length of highway at a certain time of day or night is tantamount to encouraging him or her to blow off the regulations, which strikes me as something a government agency probably isn't supposed to be doing. But, hey, what do I know?

Maybe it helps to explain why, in a state known for 'round-the-clock weigh station operations, all the coops along Interstate 80 have been closed most of the time... particularly at night. Hmm.

P.S... Bud "Money In the Pocket Today Is Better Than Money In the Bank Tomorrow" Selig must go.

No comments: