Friday, September 10, 2004

Loneliness and the Long-distance Traveller

I decided to drive across the U.S. to get here to Saskatchewan. I like the way the Americans treat people driving long distances. The Interstate Highway system is an amazing accomplishment. It connects the entire country with fast, straightforward roads. They’re all limited access and they have plenty of rest stops along the way.

As someone who needs to stop fairly regularly to “inspect the facilities” (my old dog feels the same way) I appreciate the rest stops along the highway. They’re all built along similar lines. You exit the highway and there’s a parking lot with clean bathrooms, some local information brochures, a phone and some vending machines. But there’s no McDonalds, Tim Hortons or any other kind of commercial activity. They’re quiet and friendly and they make for efficient travel.

It’s interesting that all across the US, you see taxpayers’ money used to keep up the highway system and the roadside stops along it. Sure, there are restaurants, hotels and businesses just off the highway. But if you stay on it, there’s always a place to stop and rest without being assaulted by commercial activity.

While the cost to build a similar system in Canada would be prohibitive, I wouldn’t mind seeing Canadians decide to put more tax dollars to work on our road system to make it as efficient. If I want to get somewhere, I like to be able to get there quickly, and not be forced to look at a lot of signs advertising everything in every town. In Saskatchewan, it seems like every small town has erected one or two signs for every citizen, just to tell us about the cobwebby antique place, or the dirt for sale, or the best place to get your septic tank emptied. As a traveler on the road, I don’t really see why I would ever be interested in who has the best septic tank truck…it’s just not a service I need to know about while I’m driving.

For Whom the Tolls Bill

Another item of note is the Yank's attitude towards tolls, whether for bridges, or for special high-speed highways. In America, you roll up to a toll both, toss in your quarter, or whatever, and away you go. At each of the booths, there are people sitting there, ready to make change and help you out. The system puts a lot of people to work. Sure they may not be the most glamorous jobs, but they’re steady and dependable and they help a lot of families put bread on the table. And some of them are automated, with special lanes for people who travel through regularly. But there's still lots of people working.

In Ontario, we’ve got a different system. The 407 ETR is an electronic toll collection system. You drive on and a camera records your license number and sends you a bill. It doesn’t matter where you’re from either. Out of province people get the bill as well. It’s a slick, automated system that uses the latest in technology to collect the money. And they collect a lot of money. It’s the most expensive toll road in the world. And the money goes to a private company that doesn’t even have to ask anyone to raise the tolls. They just do it.

My problem with this system is that there are no people involved. Sure, the technology is neat, but it’s put a lot of people out of work. And it must cost a lot, because they charge a lot more money than other roads. In New York and Illinois, and Michigan, and other states I’ve visited, the tolls are collected by a public authority which hires the people and puts the money back into the highway system. You know what your tolls are going to pay for and you know that a lot of people are making a living from the tolls you pay. It seems like a good system. Sure, it could be automated, but why bother?

Technology is a great thing, and I like it as much as the next guy…maybe even more. But sometimes, I think we get carried away trying to use new technology just because we can. We need to consider a different measure of when it’s a good idea. Taking away a lot of reasonable jobs just because it will improve the bottom line for shareholders isn’t always in the best interests of our community. At least, that’s how I feel about tolls. So there.

1 comment:

kaatss said...

Tolls are a good way of getting money back. But, if you look costwise, the amount of money collected will not help in creating new roads. They will be just used to resurface and current roads and oraganize the current trafic. By the way, using manual labor to collect toll from humanitarian point of view is a very good thing. But, if the costs are more than one can afford, it seems a pretty lousy idea not to automate. I am speaking from a personal perspective. I dont have the numbers to argue for/against the systems mentioned in your post. But, it sure does make someone think. Good article.