Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Ruining The Open Road

As Mary and I contemplated our annual trip to the Florida sun, leaving behind the crap, and I'm not just talking about the slush on Toronto streets and at City Hall, we groaned as the Canadian dollar sank but cheered as the price of oil fell even more.
Surely that would ease the price of gasoline which becomes quite important when you've travelled 5,000 km by the time you return.
In Ontario, the price was still above 80 cents a litre, even though the price of a barrel of oil had collapsed below $35 a barrel from its high near $150. And I told Mary about how the giant oil companies had complained to the Sun whenever I wrote an editorial complaining that the price of gas seldom sank when the price of crude oil went down. There were always these explanations about how they had actually bought the oil months ago when the price was high and we would have to wait until cheaper product got into the distribution network.
Except those bountiful days never really came. And then there was the notorious gouging at the start of long weekends about which even the oil bureaucracies seemed embarrassed.
Even though the CAA gives you a special map, and I have a Magellan GPS, we took the wrong turn in Detroit just a few seconds after we left the Ambassador bridge. It's always an ordeal finding the big Interstate south, and construction there this year doesn't help.
Of course the signage has always stunk. I remember the year we ended up in the wasteland of downtown Detroit.
Then there was the time the bridge authorities told some pre-cleared truckers that they could use the car-only lane, but there was no indication to motorists of that, meaning I wasn't expecting an 18-wheeler to compete with me and finally come over and crush my fender. Since we were between Canada and the United States, no police force wanted to show up for a minor accident, meaning the trucker escaped punishment for his dumb and dangerous driving.
Oh yes, bridge officials told me there was an accident once a week at that spot of the bridge, but no improvements have been made there for three years. And the confusing labrythn on the American side, and the rickety toll booths, make for a seedy entrance to a country which keeps boasting that it's the best in the world.
Despite its shoddy entrance at Detroit.Of course, two years ago, coming back from Florida and crossing at Buffalo, I found the construction maze and signage so bad there that I kept ranting at the Canadian customs official that it was all so Mickey Mouse that he kept apologizing and sent me on my way after forgetting to ask questions.
My trip south this year did feature, as hoped for, lower gas prices, with me paying from $1.75 to $1.93 for a gallon. Then it jumped higher. Translating this into a comparison with Canadian prices involves so much math, it's not worth the effort. Comparing the Canadian cost per litre with what the Americans are paying for their gallon is a little like comparing sour apples and kumquats since the exchange rate is involved too. But there's no disputing the obvious conclusion: Canadians pay a lot more - and that is far too much - for their gas, and the provincial and federal governments aren't going to do a damn thing about it because they benefit. The higher the price the oil companies charge, the higher the tax revenue that the governments get.
So it's a case not of authorities watching out for their citizens but of robbers watching thieves.
There is a new frustrating wrinkle for Canadians driving down the I-95 "Main Street" to Florida. And I'm not just talking about the endless miles of construction.
Stick your Visa card into the American gas pumps and you find they just won't work. Oh they may appear to work, but then they ask for a Zip Code for verification and then the pump freezes. Or the pump just blinks at you and says "see attendant inside." It got so complicated at a couple of stations that I just left.
So I turned to what was a reliable fall back, the little black cylinder that Esso uses for its Speedpass system. It was rejected. Phoned Esso/Exxon and they said my Visa card had been changed without me notifying them. So they would correct that. Tried to use the black thingamajig several days later, and it was rejected again. The attendant accepted my cash with the comment that he always uses cash because everything else had become so dang complicated.
Which is what I've been doing for weeks. With any luck, my Canadian cash will soon be worth a lot more, because surely the American dollar doesn't deserve to be that much higher than the beaver buck. And if that luck holds, the cost of gasoline will fall to a price that truly reflects the low cost of oil.
But I'm not holding my breath, not with oil companies showing that they're still the robber barons that the world thought they were a century ago, not with governments showing that they're as incompetent as banks when it comes to business.
All I can do is sit on the sand and drink. At least it's not snow.

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