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Happy Birthday Highway

12:33 A.M. June 30

CHICAGO There is no better way to honor the 50th anniversary of the Interstate Highway System than trying to drive around Chicago.

Time stands still!

My week long trip is over; I drove from Chicago to St. Paul to Rapid City, South Dakota and back home through South Dakota and Iowa. Most of my driving was along I-90, the longest interstate route in America (3,020 miles from Boston to Seattle.).

Nowhere did I encounter the traffic dilemmas that I did around Chicago. And I didn’t even travel the Chicago area in peak times. Of course, this is not a news flash. And the biggest city in South Dakota [Sioux Falls] has about as many people as Naperville (140,000). But I’ve been driving around Chicago for 30 years and I’ve seen 30 years of roadwork. This will be going on the rest of my life. So I jotted a few tips down while stuck in traffic yesterday to help future generations:

1. It’s wrong to pay $1.90 for tolls to sit in construction zones for future open road trolling. Tolls should be abolished during construction times. But that makes too much sense. So sell advertising on all the orange highway cones that I saw on this trip and drop the toll. The endless series of cones would resurrect the charms of Burma Shave. Don’t laugh. Several years ago no one thought there would be advertising on El trains.

2. Toll booth operators are always so grumpy.

Let them decorate their own booths. How about a tiki toll booth? Or the old woman who lived in a shoe? A hockey penalty box! Last Friday morning I spent almost an hour trying to get through the tollbooth near Beloit. A Wisconsin deer lodge/supper club motif would have cheered me up.

3. Save money by using fake flagmen on worksites. This is not a joke.

When I visted Tokyo in 2000, I saw workzones with lifesize male mannequins dressed as flagmen, wearing yellow helmets and holding flags and flashlights. But in the states someone would steal them. Second option, then: let flagpeople wear whatever they want; bikinis, White Sox uniforms, Brooks Brothers suits, Santa Claus outfits in the winter. People will pay closer attention.

4. More advertising reveune to cut consumer costs: obtain sponsorship for the electric tollway signs that relay travel times: “The Sun-TImes brings you Tollway Time,” “Do the Crime; Serve the Time/Joe’s Bail Bonds.” Also run sports scores and a news crawl for when traffic is really backed up.

I bet Prescott Bush and President Eisenhower never thought of this stuff when they helped give birth to the interstates. But then they never envisioned the convluted Illinois Tollway system.

Finally while tooling around Iowa’s open roads I was listening to the music of my friend Pat McLaughlin. He’s a sweet country soul singer originally from Waterloo, Iowa who now lives in Nashville. A superb music bet for the Fourth of July weekend is Pat’s appearance Saturday night at the FitzGerald’s American Music Festival in Berwyn.

Some friends in Nashville took me to see Pat nearly 15 years ago when he was pegged as Nashville’s Van Morrison [a description that makes him uncomfortable]. A magnificent performer in his own right, Pat has also written hit songs for Alan Jackson, Tanya Tucker and Delbert McClinton. Rick Rubin hired him to play guitar on Neil Diamond’s recent record and the last recordings from Johnny Cash. Pat is taking a break this weekend from his new role as a member of John Prine’s band. This is a set not to be missed. Maybe I’ll see you there and I’ll give you a detour out of Chicago.