Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tom Cochrane – "Life Is a Highway" (1991)

Life is a highway
I wanna ride it all night long

In 1974, the Virginia Department of Transportation (“VDOT”) proposed to build an eight-lane highway (four lanes in each direction) from the Washington Beltway to Arlington, Virginia – the closest-in Virginia suburb of Washington – where the highway would split into two six-lane branches.  One of those branches would use an existing bridge over the Potomac River into D.C., while the other would cross into D.C. over the proposed Three Sisters Bridge.  

Thanks to the usual NIMBY  (“Not in my back yard”) opposition from local residents, the Three Sisters Bridge was never built and the eight-lane highway – which was designated as I-66 – became a four-lane highway (two lanes in each direction) that finally opened to traffic in 1982.

Rush hour traffic on I-66
From the very beginning, I-66 was a parking lot during rush hour.  Two lanes was obviously inadequate to handle the volume of traffic that the road attracted, but proposals to widen the highway met with vehement opposition from local residents.  In an effort to limit congestion, highway officials imposed draconian restrictions on drivers wishing to use I-66, allowing only Dulles Airport traffic and HOV-2 cars (those carrying two or more people) to use the highway during four-hour-long morning and evening rush-hour windows.

Some drivers resorted to putting mannequins in the passenger seat to make it appear that they were carpoolers:

Those who did get caught using I-66 without one or more passengers had to pay $125 for the first offense, $250 for the second, and so on.  But some estimated that as many as half the people using I-66 during rush hours were rolling the dice and driving solo.

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Earlier this month, VDOT introduced tolls on I-66.  The stretch of I-66 where tolls are charged is only ten miles long, but it runs through densely-populated suburban neighborhoods directly into downtown Washington, DC.  

To use I-66 during rush hours, any solo driver must set up an “E-ZPass” account and put a transponder on his car’s windshield, which triggers charges to his account every time he uses the highway.

A number of toll roads around the U.S. charge higher prices during peak usage hours.  For example, the lightly-trafficked Intercounty Connector toll road in the Maryland county where I live charges 22 cents a mile during rush hour, 17 cents a mile the rest of the day, and 7 cents a mile during the wee hours.

Virginia wanted to keep traffic on I-66 moving at 45 mph (or faster).  So they made the tolls variable.  When traffic volume is high, the price charged goes up, which discourages drivers from driving on I-66.  Pretty soon, the traffic volume lessens, speeds increase, and the tolls go down.  

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VDOT officials projected that tolls would peak at $7 during the morning rush-hour period, and at $9 in the afternoon.  That’s not exactly cheap for a ten-mile drive, but you can always take the Metro if you don’t want to pay.

The first day the I-66 tolls were applied, the cost to use the highway at 5:36 am was $4.50.

But exactly three hours later, the toll hit – I kid you not – $34.50!

That’s right . . . $34.50 for a ten-mile drive!

VDOT officials were sanguine about the high tolls.  As far as they were concerned, the adjustable tolls did their job – which was to keep traffic moving.  The average speed during the morning rush hour was 57 mph – much better than the 37 mph average speed on I-66 during morning rush hours a year ago.

Of course, the difference between driving ten miles at 57 mph and ten miles at 37 mph is less than six minutes.  (Is it worth $34.50 to you to save six minutes on your morning commute?)  

The next day, the peak toll was $40!

But the day after that, tolls peaked at just $23.50.  Such a deal!

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Not surprisingly, Virginia drivers screamed bloody murder about the unexpectedly high tolls, pointing out that only the wealthy or those with generous expense accounts would be able to afford to use I-66 during peak hours.  

Suddenly, their elected representatives woke up and decried the price gouging.  Several state reps have called on VDOT to get rid of the tolls altogether and go back to the old HOV-2 system.

I doubt that will happen.  Once a government agency sinks its teeth into a new source of revenue, it rarely lets go.

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Canadian country-western singer Tom Cochrane wrote and recorded “Life Is a Highway” in 1991.  It was a #1 hit in Canada and a top ten hit in the United States.

The song was inspired by a trip Cochrane took to East Africa to raise money for famine relief.  One of the countries he visited was Mozambique, which explains why that country is mentioned in the song.  

In 2006, Rascal Flats recorded a cover of the song that was included on the soundtrack for the wildly successful animated movie, Cars.  

Here’s Tom Cochrane’s original recording of “Life Is a Highway”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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