While we sit in traffic, technology races ahead

Published November 17, 2006

Out in New Tampa, they're wondering what's to become of us.

If you want the east-west road, you are cursing expressway honcho Ralph Mervine's fall from grace and hoping that, as they say, the project will stay on track.

If you didn't, you're rejoicing that government can't seem to make two quarters equal 50 cents.

Which brings us to the Veterans Expressway.

How do they get away with asking us for millions of dollars for road widening without giving us so much as an $8-an-hour toll collector to say thank you, and maybe turn you around if you've lost your way?

Instead they want to push us into SunPass.

It's as if they can hold the road-widening project hostage with something called a "no-build option."

In plain English that means: You support this all-electronic idea, which makes our lives easier but will have you pulling off the road and pulling out your credit card. After all, we can always leave you in gridlock for eternity.

"All-electronic does not eliminate cash transactions," says a notice on the Web page. (Yes, the road widening has a page.) "It just moves them off the roadway."

Essentially, you've got to get off the road and buy something called a "transponder." Or call ahead and give someone your credit card and tag numbers.

Welcome to the future, right?

Only you've got to wonder, how forward-thinking were we, as a society, to get here in the first place?

How is it that the technology that brought us overhead gantries and transponders (which already exist on the road into Brandon) can coexist with the lack of foresight that brought us rampant growth without a comprehensive road plan?

We have no beltway. No viable mass transit. Two-lane roads with crowded schools on them, moms in SUVs chatting on cell phones while they drive on the shoulders to get their kids to class and themselves to work.

In my 16 years here I have yet to see government say no to a developer or a home builder or, most unlikely, a Wal-Mart. (If they did, I'm sure I was held up in traffic that day.)

Sticking out your credit card to buy a transponder, or put money on your transponder like minutes on a cell phone, is an act of faith. It isn't loose change on the dashboard, but membership in a club. A formal relationship with government that, when it comes to transportation, is failing us more with each passing day.

Yes, I'm lumping county with state with regional, but what's the difference when you can't make a left?

Expressway spokeswoman Joanne Hurley assures me the transition to all-electronic will be gentle and gradual. "We're not talking tomorrow," she says.

No, it will be at least 10 years (read 20). It will fall to a generation for whom transponders and overhead gantries are as natural as texting math test answers or downloading Panic! At the Disco.

As for that kindly flower-shirted toll taker?

He or she will be replaced by a voice on the telephone who wishes you a naaasss day after taking the digits from your credit card.

"People who use our roadways expect convenience, and customer service is a big part of that," Hurley said.

Cynic that I am, I imagine a call center in Bangladesh.

No, Hurley corrects me. They do it all in Florida.