Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Land of the Tollways

Florida is famous for palm trees, beaches, Disney World, NASA, and (more recently) hurricanes and blue-tarped roofs. But there is one unsung aspect of life in the Sunshine State that you'll quickly learn about unless you never stray from the airport or wander more than a few blocks from home: the toll roads.

I have grown up around tollways, but to me, a toll is typically 40 or 50 cents. Paper money and toll roads just don't go hand in hand in my mind. In Florida, especially around Disney World, you'd better get out the folding green. For example, if you take 417, also known as the Greenway, from Orlando International Airport to Celebration, you'll pony up $2.50 for a ride that takes less than half an hour. Even if you take I-4, the "freeway," you'll still have to pay up on 528 (the Beeline) if you access 4 via the airport's North Exit. And if you take Osceola Parkway, be prepared to get a second mortgage on your house.

Of course, there are plenty of shortcuts and sideroads that locals use to avoid the tolls, not to mention the hordes of tourists. You learn them almost by osmosis; some are disclosed to you by friends and neighbors, and you stumble across others while exploring the terrain. But sometimes the lure of the tollway is just too great to resist, and the convenience outweighs the cost. We always take 417 to the airport because (unlike the giant parking lot known as I-4), it rarely has traffic jams. You zip along, never pausing except to hand over another dollar every mile.

Actually, there are some delays on 417, but it has nothing to do with traffic density. Rather, it is directly related to what I have dubbed the "Life Story People." They are generally out of towners who can't just hand over their money to the toll collector and be on their way. They have to ask for directions and go into their whole life story while they're at it. A typical conversaton might go something like this:

"Am I headed the right way to Disney World? Will I know it when I see it? Is it big? Will Mickey Mouse be there? You know, I've wanted to see Mickey in person ever since I was born 40 years ago. Speaking of my birth, let me tell you about it, and every ensuing year up until this year moment, in excrutiating detail..."

Meanwhile the line of cars behind Mr. Life Story stretches back to the airport and beyond.

I have learned a few strategies to lessen my changes of getting behind one of the Life Story people. First and foremost, avoid the cars in which the driver is also a) simultaneously reading a map that is spread out over the steering wheel; b) erratically applying the brakes every few seconds; c) weaving continuously over the center line; or d) all of the above. A large amount of luggage strapped to the top of the vehicle is, of course, a dead giveaway and a sign to stay far, far away at toll booths.

Second, look for a car with license plates that list a specific county rather than the generic "Sunshine State" slogan. A "Sunshine State" plate is a sure sign of a rental car, i.e. a tourist. Better than a county is a vanity plate or one touting some cause, such as "Save the Manatees." Still better is some type of bumper sticker like, "My child is an honor student at (insert name of local school here)."

Third, avoid vehicles that pause just in front of the booths for several seconds before pulling up. This is a sign that not only are they a lost tourist, but they had no idea that getting to Disney World was going to cost more than their hotel room. Not only will they share their life story with the toll collector, but they will simultaneously be conducting a search for any last penny they can find.

Speaking of "last pennies," we had an interesting encounter last time we flew home. Most Florida toll booths are manned, but the ones at the entrances and exits are often "Exact Change Only." This usually means quarters; the toll to exit from 417 onto Celebration Avenue or to get onto the tollway is 50 cents.

Unfortunately, the toll basket is often broken. I've lost count of the times when I've tossed in my coins and waited in vain for the little light to turn from red to green. Finally, I just floor the car, trying to ignore the "Toll Evader!" siren and praying that I'm not going to find a ticket in my mailbox.

On this trip, at the Celebration Avenue exit, the car in front of us pulled into the Sunpass lane (that is for people with pre-paid toll transponders). It has a gate that goes up when your payment has been recorded, but the gate didn't raise so the car backed out just as I approached and cut in front of me in the coin lane. It didn't seem to pause very long before peeling out. At the very same instant, a cop pulled into the Sunpass lane and saw what had happened. On went the lights, and the car ahead of us was pulled over before he'd made it more than a few feet towards the traffic light.

Meanwhile, as I tried to toss in my payment, I realized that the coin basket was pulled askew, and the machinery inside it was making some God-awful noises. I tossed in my quarters anyway, but of course they didn't register. I was scared to death that if I went through, the cop would nab me too! Finally I had to go, and sure enough, the "Deadbeat" lights and siren went off on the toll lane. But the cop was intent with the other car and ignored me.

Now I started wondering...had the other person put in money, too, and been unfairly nabbed because of the broken basket? Should I interfere, or should I just mind my own business? My good citizenship got the better of me, and I pulled in front of the car, leaned my head out the window, and hollered to the cop that the toll booth was broken. He replied, "This guy didn't even try to pay." That might well have been the case; I had given it a go, and if the cop had witnessed a blatant non-payment, I wasn't going to argue. I didn't have a clear view of what the other car did, so he could very well have been a scofflaw. Why would you try to save a measley 50 cents and take the risk of ending up with a big bucks ticket?

Interestingly enough, one of the only good (i.e. not terribly, horribly bad) effects of the hurricane was the suspension of tolls throughout Florida in order to expedite evacuations. It felt so strange to drive 417 without poking my husband to hand over money every five miles. And for our September 9 cruise, we made it all the way from Celebration to Fort Lauderdale without paying a dime...otherwise, the tolls would have cost more than the gas!

But as nice as it was to not have to pay, I'll happily cough up money for the tolls as long as we see another hurricane again. 100+ mile per hour winds are not worth the free pass.

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