Dave Barry

Block the road all nite

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Oct. 15, 2000.)

According to a recent newspaper article that I carefully clipped out and then lost but I remember the gist of, traffic gridlock in the United States is very bad. It's getting to the point where many commuters arrive at work, use the bathroom, then immediately begin commuting home.

FACT: The average American commuter whose car radio is tuned to a ''Classic Rock'' station spends more time singing along to the Kiss song ''Rock And Roll All Nite'' than talking with his or her spouse.

FACT: I made the preceding fact up, but for all we know it could be true.

What is causing this traffic congestion? According to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which recently completed a six-year, $187.3 million study of the problem, the root cause is, quote, ''a whole lot of people driving.'' But that is only part of the problem. The other part is: highway construction. I happen to travel extensively, because of the nature of my profession (I am a monarch butterfly). I would estimate that, at present, approximately two-thirds of our nation's highways have been rendered impassible by ''construction'' crews. If there had been this much highway construction going on back in 1804, Lewis and Clark would never have gotten any farther west than Atlantic City, N.J.

Now, I realize that we must pay a price for progress. As the old saying goes, ''You can't make an omelet without putting millions of motorists through living hell for decades.'' I honestly believe that when all these highway projects are finally done, the world will be a better place. Unfortunately, that will be 17 million years from now, and the only living things left on Earth will be cockroaches. As they crawl along the wide-open, obstacle-free highway system, they'll wave their feelers at each other, communicating the message: ``I'm so glad they finished this thing before they became extinct!''

The problem is, at the current rate of progress, 17 million years might not be enough. To understand why, let's take a look at how a typical highway construction project works:

PHASE I: The Division of Traffic Cones (motto: ''Over Our Dead Bodies'') sets out the hundreds of thousands of cones that form the heart of any highway project. Often, in fact, they ARE the project. What happens is, a crew will strew cones all over a stretch of highway the length of Tennessee, and this effort will use up the entire budget for that particular project, leaving the highway department with no financially responsible choice but to abandon it and move on to the next project in the Master Highway Construction Plan, which was originally developed during World War II by Nazi undercover agents seeking to bring America to its knees.

If there is any money left over, the project moves to:

PHASE II: Large, angry men come with jackhammers and do not leave until every square inch of usable road surface has been smashed into pieces no larger than a standard Chiclet.

PHASE III: Nothing happens in Phase III, which typically lasts six years.

PHASE IV: Workers from the Division of Great Big Machines That Never Actually Move litter the construction site with huge, powerful-looking pieces of construction equipment, many of which do not have engines. Eventually these are worn away by erosion.

PHASE V: The project is actually completed, and a giant talking cucumber from Mars dances the hula.

I don't mean to be overly critical of highway-construction workers. They're only doing their jobs. I'm especially grateful to the unsung employees of the Division of Really Helpful Signs. Think of this crack unit the next time you're trying to get somewhere, traveling at roughly the same speed as the Chrysler Building, creeping past miles of cones and immobile construction equipment, some of which has vines growing on it, and at last you come to what is, as far as you can tell, the only working machine in the entire highway project: a generator-powered electric sign, flashing the vital message: ''EXPECT DELAYS.''

Yes, gridlock is indeed a problem. What can we, as citizens, do about it? Plenty! We can form car pools with our co-workers, so that instead of being stuck in traffic, we'll be stuck in traffic smelling our co-workers' bodily odors. Or we can take mass transit, defined as ''transit that does not go where you need to go.'' Finally, we can demand that Congress take action, in the form of laws requiring ''Classic Rock'' stations to play some different songs. Working together, we CAN make a difference! Then we can rock and roll all nite, and party every day.

(c) Dave Barry

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