Open letter to the Illinois Department of Transportation


Categories: Personal

Illinois Department of Transportation
2300 S. Dirksen Pkwy.
Springfield, IL 62764

Dear Department of Transportation:

In late April, I had occasion to take the Illinois tollway system from Wisconsin to Indiana, and then from Indiana to Wisconsin. I must assure you, the experience was remarkable. I have used your tollway before, mostly for trips to Chicago. I was immediately struck by the observation that the toll rate had jumped from \$0.40 per booth to \$0.80 or \$1.00 per booth. At one of the last tollbooths I reached, I attempted to exchange an extra dollar for quarters, but the booth attendent nearly returned the extra dollar to me; in fact, he donated it with good cheer to the wind, trusting its fate to whatever agency governs the elements. However, he very kindly gave me four quarters for it anyway, a guesture I certainly appreciated.

On the way out, the tollway seemed mostly unexceptional. On the way back, however, we came through Chicago between roughly 3:30PM and 6:00PM. I don’t mean to imply any imprecision about when we were there; we were there that whole time.

I was particularly struck by the design of the “express” lanes, where incoming traffic had to merge through the express lanes to reach exits four lanes away. This innovative design, completely unlike any other express lanes I have seen in any state, gave a sort of “we’re all in this together” feel, where the express lanes were in no way singled out for special efficiency or speed.

Now, for perhaps the first hour and a half I spent on the Chicago portion of the tollway, I was unable to figure this out; why was I in the only traffic I’ve ever seen which was actually worse than San Francisco rush hour, and yet, being asked to pay for access to this road? Elsewhere, badly-maintained roads are generally covered by state taxes or federal funds, and toll roads show better than usual design and traffic flow.

However, somewhere during the estimated 62 minutes (according to the conveniently located signs) it took us to reach Edens Crossing, it occurred to me that a simple explanation was available; this was satire. Seen as satire, the entire experience makes sense. The oasis structures “closed to serve you better”. The express lanes with cars merging across them, frequently actually slower than the local lanes. The unpredictable and ever-rising toll costs. The whole thing is, of course, a deeply incisive commentary on the essential futility of modern commuter lifestyles, demonstrating the fundamental absurdity of our notions of “transit”. In a world full of comedians asking why we drive on the parkway and park in the driveway, the Illinois Department of Transportation has offered us the sensible alternative of parking on the parkway.

Needless to say, performance art on a scale like this cannot be cheap; it is obvious that it imposes substantial costs, and recovering them through the “toll booths” makes sense. It might be easier for people to handle if the costs were more predictable; perhaps, say, having all costs be multiples of \$.25 would be better than the current system which virtually guarantees that a typical booth will require at least two, and often three, distinct types of currency – and yet, even this is probably social commentary on the inevitability of a single world currency.

It is worth mentioning that, in fact, due to the mysteries of wind and the impossibility of driving more than about five to six feet without coming to a complete stop, I was able to recover the wayward dollar bill about a minute (and perhaps fifteen feet, as the crow flies) from the tollbooth where it was offered up to whatever winds would carry it. I enclose it (or perhaps another; I regret that I cannot easily tell them apart) for your perusal and enjoyment.

Peter Seebach, traveller.

s.: Next time, I am considering driving through Lake Michigan. It might be faster.

Yes, I really sent this. And yes, I really enclosed a dollar bill. Could even be the same one.

Comments [archived]

From: beoba
Date: 2005-05-08 18:16:39 -0500

You have far more free time than a mere mortal. I salute you.

From: tubby
Date: 2005-05-08 19:00:47 -0500

Peter, sometimes I worry about you.

Why don’t you take up a hobby like lawn darts or snowshoe making?

Life is too short, my friend. Really!

From: Steve
Date: 2005-05-09 10:58:19 -0500

Too cheap to take the Skyway? It’s amazing what 6 million commuters will do to a series of expressways that have to weave around so many buildings, huh.

Did you have the pleasure of meeting any of the drivers whose cars’ brake pedals are connected to the horns? I love those.

Chicago is and always will be my favorite city. Driving through it, however, when you’re not familiar with it is a pain in the arse. Sorry ‘bout your luck, Seebs.

From: seebs
Date: 2005-05-11 18:53:23 -0500