Say goodbye to the toll booth. Say hello to open road tolling.
In Florida, it’s already here. Massachusetts will convert the Massachusetts Turnpike on October 28, 2016. And Ohio may be next.
Toll roads, of course, have been around for decades, and so too has the familiar toll booth, with a person inside who collects your money and gives you change. This basic arrangement remained unchanged until the 1990s, when electronic tolling systems were introduced, initially to relieve congestion on some of the busiest toll roads and bridges in the Northeast. Electronic tolling enables motorists to drive through the toll lanes without stopping, so long as they have a toll account and a transponder affixed to their windshield.
E-Z Pass is the largest system of this type, encompassing 38 agencies across 16 states, concentrated in the Northeast where most of the toll roads and bridges are located. Three Southeastern states have their own electronic toll collection systems, all incompatible with E-Z Pass: South Carolina (Palmetto Pass), Georgia (Peach Pass), and Florida (Sunpass).
Initially, electronic tolling used existing conventional toll lanes. As its popularity grew, especially in congested metropolitan areas, it became more common to see only one or two cash lanes, with the rest being electronic only. There was also grumbling from motorists about needing to slow down to 5 or 10 miles per hour (in a lane where formerly they would need to stop.) Because the slower speed was for the safety of the toll workers, not any technical requirement, some plazas were redesigned to allow electronic toll customers to drive at faster speeds.
This evolved into “open road tolling” where motorists stay on the highway mainline and need not slow down at all. The toll plaza on the New Hampshire Turnpike and the Woodbury plaza on the New York Thruway were rebuilt to take advantage of this, relieving long-standing traffic bottlenecks in the process. E-Z Pass customers stay to the left, maintaining 65 MPH speed, while cash customers stay to the right and stop at traditional toll booths. The tolling electronics are placed in overhead gantries, along with a system that photographs license plates, originally intended to catch scofflaws driving through without paying.
So that brings us to the present day and the latest toll road trend – the completely cashless open road tolling system where there are no toll booths at all and no option for paying a cash toll on the spot. Cars without a toll transponder receive a bill in the mail, sent to the registered owner of the car whose license plate was photographed (which tends to be slightly higher than an electronically collected toll.)
All electronic tolling certainly has a number of advantages, especially in congested areas. There’s no slowing down for the toll booth, no weaving to get into the proper toll lane (cash or electronic), and no fumbling for change. Everybody wins, right?
That may be true if you are driving your own car. But with a rental car, things get more complicated and potentially much more expensive.
On two recent Florida trips, my rental car came with its own SunPass, with an ON / OFF switch. Once you turn it ON and drive through an electronic toll barrier, you are agreeing to the rental company’s terms and conditions for using it. But read the rental contract very carefully – some charge an extra $4 a day for the entire length of the rental regardless of how much the SunPass is used. Thus, for a two week rental, a single $1 toll could cost you $56!
Therefore, if your rental car has a toll transponder with an ON / OFF switch, make certain it is turned OFF and leave it OFF for the entire period you have the car. (And check the wording on the switch very carefully – on my rental car, ON was down and OFF was up – backwards from a conventional light switch.)
But if you do nothing else and drive on roads using Toll By Plate, your outcome may be even worse. The signs may boast “We bill you with Toll By Plate” but remember those bills will go to the registered owner of the car, which is the rental company, not you. Expect a bill from the rental company with a substantial service charge tacked on – after all, the rental company expects you to use their transponder for $4 a day.
The answer is, you must pay your own tolls yourself and leave the rental company out of it. Fortunately, there are two ways you can do this:
1. Use your own transponder. If you don’t already have one, you can get one through any of the agencies issuing them – you need not be a resident of that state. (And remember South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida are not E-Z Pass states, so you will need to get a SunPass when visiting Florida, for example.)
2. Establish your own Toll-By-Plate account. We used this technique successfully on two Florida trips. Once you reach your hotel or some other place where you can safely go online, enter the license plate number from your rental car into your account with the dates of your rental. Most toll roads offer you a grace period, so you can backdate the starting date even if you have already incurred a toll. You will probably need to fund this account by means of a credit card, but this will enable you to pay your own tolls yourself, at the Toll-By-Plate rate, and leave the rental company out of it.
Looking ahead, it’s clear that open road tolling is here to stay. But because people can no longer “opt out” by paying a cash toll (unless they avoid the toll road completely, which often is not practical) a couple of changes are in order:
1. A national toll system where any transponder is universally accepted by all toll roads and bridges. A good step in this direction would for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to abandon their own systems and become part of E-Z Pass.
2. Consumer protections for rental cars. Because rental car customers can no longer avoid the high prices connected to the rental company’s transponder by simply going through a cash toll lane (and the Toll By Plate option is not made clear, either by the toll road or the rental company) it ought to be illegal for rental companies to reap huge profits off this. Customers ought to be able to use the transponder in their rental car for the cost of the tolls incurred alone, plus a reasonable service charge.
As 2014 begins, several vintage diners have recently reopened under new management, representing an interesting cross-section of diner styles, manufacturers, and degrees of preservation. We haven’t visited any of these diners yet under their present ownership, so we can’t offer any opinions on food or service. If you visit any of these diners, please let us know about your experiences.
Empire Diner, 210 10th Avenue, New York, NY
New York City’s Empire Diner has to be one of the most interesting diner preservation stories of all time. A 1940s Fodero diner sited in the Chelsea neighborhood, it received a partial façade makeover in the 1950s, masking the diner’s original roofline. But a more extensive renovation in 1976 received much more attention, including a cover story in New York magazine.
The red bands on the 1950s upper façade were repainted black and white (greatly improving the diner’s appearance, in my view), EAT was painted on the wall of an adjacent building in lettering matching that on the diner, and a skyscraper model was installed on the roof corner. The inside was modified in ways that ordinarily would make a diner purist cringe – the ceiling was painted black, track lights were added, and the table tops were overlaid with black Plexiglass. Nonetheless, the diner was a hit with the public and well-received within the diner enthusiast community as well, as evidenced by the fact that renowned diner artist John Baeder did a painting of the renovated Empire.
All was well until 2010 when things turned ugly, to say the least. Proprietor Renate Gonzalez was evicted and the diner was leased to a new operator. A fight ensued over the name Empire Diner, resulting in the new operator using the name Highliner Diner. The skyscraper model on the roof went missing. The interior was renovated, including the addition of a communal table. But the Highliner didn’t have all that long a life, closing at the end of 2012.
Now reopened under “celebrity chef” Amanda Frietag, the Empire has received another round of renovations. The ceiling is now white, probably a more appropriate color for a diner ceiling than black. There’s new booths and stools with backs, and it looks like the counter is shorter than it once was. But the Fodero winged clock is still there, and plans are to resume 24 hour operation once again.
Salem Diner, 70 1/2 Loring Avenue, Salem, Massachusetts
The Salem Diner is one of only two Sterling Streamliners still operating (the Modern Diner in Pawtucket, RI is the other one.) Recently acquired by Salem State University, the diner is operated by Chartwells, its food service operator. A similar arrangement exists at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where two diners – the Streamliner (Worcester) and Bobbie’s Diner (Mountain View) – are operated by the college’s food service operator.
Regular diner hours are Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Those 8 to 11 nighttime hours seem geared toward students needing a late night snack.
Izzy’s Diner and Pizza (formerly Miss Adams Diner), 53 Park Street, Adams, MA
The Miss Adams Diner, Worcester Lunch Car number 821, was delivered to Adams in 1949, replacing an older diner (still in use as Claudette’s 1921 Diner in Boylston, MA.) The diner received much favorable attention in the 1990s under the ownership of Barry and Nancy Garton (who today operate Brew Ha Ha in North Adams), but after they left, ownership of the diner was assumed by Boston restaurateur Jae Chung who leased the diner to a long succession of tenants, none of whom seemed to last very long. Then in 2005 – wrongly surmising the building was the problem – Chung undertook a “remodeling” which consisted of covering the original Worcester Lunch Car woodwork with shiny metal and stapling records to the ceiling, giving the place an artificial “retro 1950s” look. (One might say that with a 1949 Worcester Lunch Car they already had the real thing.)
By 2010 Chung had lost ownership of the diner and Steepleview Realty leased it to Philomene and Ric Belair, who ultimately were unable to come to terms to purchase the diner. Today, Izzy’s Diner and Pizza operates out of the old Miss Adams, run by Rick “Izzy” Solomon and Annmarie Belmonte. It’s the second time behind that marble counter for Belmonte – she was the last person to operate the Miss Adams under Chung’s ownership. And if a pizza joint isn’t your idea of the best use of a diner, take heart in the fact that meatloaf and lumberjack breakfast sandwiches are among the best sellers. They are even open for dinner, rare for a diner in New England!
Parkway Diner, 1696 Williston Road, South Burlington, Vermont
Due to a lease issue, this diner dropped out of the orbit of northern Vermont diner mogul William Maglaris (who had renamed it the Arcadia Diner.) It’s the Parkway Diner again, now operated by Corey Gottfried. This diner highly impressed me on my one visit in 2012 – even with the Arcadia name. Manufactured near the end of the Worcester Lunch Car Company’s long run (# 839), this diner sports stainless steel trim on the outside – an attempt to keep up with the New Jersey manufacturers – but inside, there’s still varnished wood trim and cooking behind the counter.
The Diner (formerly Sullivan’s Diner), 59 Old Ithaca Road, Horseheads, NY
The Irish name Sullivan fit well with the original green tile and trim of this 1940s Silk City diner. So, what happens when the diner is taken over by a Yankees fan – one who wants to put his mark on the place? Sullivan green gives way to Yankees blue, and original Silk City tile work on the counter and floor is lost. The two views below show how Sullivan’s looked in 2008. Now, click here to see some photos of how it looks now.
Katz Club Diner, 1975 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
If one vintage diner is good, then two have to be better, right? You might want to consider the history of this diner pair in Cleveland Heights before answering. Originally the Zephyr Diner (O’Mahony) from Berwick, Pennsylvania and the Terminal Diner (Mountain View) from Atlantic City, both diners received a meticulous restoration at Steve Harwin’s Diversified Diners before opening in Cleveland Heights as Dottie’s Diner and the Sweet City Diner. By the time of my visit in 2006, ownership had changed and they were Chris’ Diner and Jimmy’s Diner. Next it was Clyde’s Bistro, and the interior of the Mountain View was gutted. Now the Katz Club Diner, the O’Mahony has received some renovations that take it farther away from its original O’Mahony look, covering the original terrazzo floor with tile and replacing the booths with tables. Here’s two views of the O’Mahony from 2006 (when it was Chris’ Diner). Now, click here for a news article with a picture of how the interior looks now.
UPDATE: The Arcadia Diner closed on August 27, 2013 according to a posting on their Facebook page, citing a “huge increase in our monthly rent” as the reason for the closing. We hope this pristine Worcester Lunch Car reopens soon, and a return to the Parkway Diner name would be nice as well.
Whenever a vintage diner changes ownership, diner fans hold their breath. And when one owner acquires several diners, we tend to expect the worst. This happened in Philadelphia, where the landmark Mayfair and Melrose Diners were remodeled by a new owner, damaging their vintage charm in the process.
So it’s with this in mind that I had been observing the diner scene in Burlington, Vermont, where William Maglaris had been acquiring diners and rebranding them with Greek-sounding appellations. Libby’s Blue Line Diner (Worcester # 838) became the Athens Diner, and the Parkway Diner (Worcester # 839) became the Arcadia, an oval with the new name added over the top of “Parkway” on the original diner sign.
But on my recent visit, the original Parkway lettering was back in view, spurring me to ask the cashier some questions. The Arcadia sign ran afoul of sign regulations and the “historic” Parkway sign needed to remain, although the cashier said they were still trying to change it.
“Oh, so you’re still trying to call it the Arcadia Diner?” I said.
“We’re not trying to call it the Arcadia Diner. It is the Arcadia Diner!”
But here’s the good news: None of this makes a bit of difference. The diner’s interior gleams as though it had just left the Worcester Lunch Car factory, with beautiful tile and varnished wood trim. Cooking is still done behind the counter here, with a unique plate pass-through at a spot where it looks like one counter stool is missing. The food itself is a delight as well. My bacon was thick, crisp, and flavorful, accompanied by home fries made from large chunks of fresh potatoes. Constant Companion gave thumbs up to her spinach omelet, made with cheddar cheese.
So, the Parkway Diner sign might remain the way it is, or perhaps be replaced someday by one which reads Arcadia. Either way, it’s just a name. A diner, by any other name, is just as tasty.
1696 Williston Road South Burlington, VT 05403
The Miss Albany Diner as we know it is gone.
Yes, there is still a Silk City diner at 893 Broadway in the city, as there has been since 1941. For many years it was Lil’s Diner, serving working people in Albany’s industrial North End in classic diner fashion. But beginning in 1988, the Brown family – Cliff Brown, wife Jane, and later son Bill – turned it into a diner destination, remembered for unique food items such as MAD Irish Toast and Cliff Brown’s diner wisdom, evident in signs hanging around the diner. (“When a child’s behavior draws the attention of other dining patrons, maybe an acting school would provide a better destination than public dining” reads one.)
The diner is now owned by the people who own Wolff’s Biergarten next door, and they are
not yet saying what they intend to do with the diner. Matt Baumgartner, one of the new owners, was quoted in Business Review : “I have zero interest in going into the diner business.” That’s not a good sign for those wanting to have breakfast in the diner again, even if it’s a generic Sysco breakfast rather than the Miss Albany’s signature fare.
As a lifelong Capital Region resident, I had always known the diner was there, just down Broadway from the rooftop Nipper, the RCA Dog. But it took me years to realize that this was a diner worth visiting. When I began reading Roadside Magazine and their Roadside Online web site in the mid 1990s, they featured diner reviews and advertising for many appealing diners in New England, Pennsylvania, and other places that would entail a considerable drive – and one diner near me, the Miss Albany.
Even so, it took a phone call from Cliff Brown to get things moving. I had just started the RoadsideFans e-mail group in 2001, and Cliff was perhaps surprised that there was a local diner enthusiast he had not yet met. So I made the first of many visits I would make over the next decade, sometimes not even ordering food but just chatting with Cliff about anything and everything diner-
related. I felt privileged when Cliff invited me through the diner’s swinging kitchen doors and down the narrow stairway leading into the diner’s basement, where he had his “executive suite” in a room barely bigger than a walk-in closet. Cliff also pointed out the place on the diner’s undercarriage where “4195” was painted on a beam – the diner’s Silk City serial number, the 95th diner made in 1941.
I enjoyed my visits, including one in 2002 on Cliff’s 75th birthday where a customer at the counter led an impromptu singing of “Happy Birthday.” But as the years went by, I could see age and infirmities take their toll on Cliff Brown, a decline not unlike the one I had seen with my own father. And running a diner is tough on a young man, to say nothing of a man in his 80s. Sometimes health problems kept Cliff away from the diner, so I would chat with Jane or Bill instead. I always regarded Cliff and the Miss Albany as “Great diner, Great diner owner” but amended that to “Great diner family.”
So it wasn’t entirely a surprise when the Browns put the Miss Albany up for sale in 2009. Bill Brown was doing a great job running the place, suggesting that the Miss Albany might be able to go on without Cliff. But when I suggested this to Bill, it was clear he had made up his mind and the Miss Albany Diner was not in his future.
Cliff Brown died November 1, 2010. The Miss Albany Diner served its last meal February 10, 2012. Mother and son Jane and Bill Brown now get to sleep late, travel, and enjoy life in a number of ways big and small that people on the other side of the diner counter have always taken for granted.
Thanks for the memories.
This posting was updated January 1, 2013 to reflect information from a newspaper article in The Times Record.
When I was a child, the road to Grandma’s house was New York Route 2, leading from our home in Troy over Grafton Mountain to the small town of Petersburg. Our family’s many trips there are the earliest road trips I recall.
Petersburg (sometimes spelled Petersburgh) was founded in 1791 and once had railroad service, but the 20th Century and automobile travel brought many changes to the town. Most noteworthy was the construction of the Taconic Trail, a modern highway through Petersburg Pass connecting the town to Williamstown, Massachusetts and the Mohawk Trail.
(Note that the Taconic Trail is unrelated to the Taconic Parkway, a separate north-south highway connecting New York City to the New York Thruway Berkshire Spur near Chatham.)
The road into Petersburg begins with a steep decline and the junction with NY 22, a north-south highway running from New York City to the Canadian border along the state’s eastern edge. This junction is shown in an early postcard:
The road to the right leads to Route 22; the road to the left traverses a stone overpass and leads into the town center. The same highway configuration exists today.
Petersburg once had three general stores, but by my lifetime only one remained in operation. It was built by Fred Nichols in 1892 and this early postcard shows the “Nichols Block.” Later the store was Waters & Sawyer, later operated by Mary Sawyer, then Vern O’Dell and finally Ziggie Krahforst before closing for good in the 1980s.
A nearly identical view of this store published in Petersburgh Then and Now: A Photographic Comparison by Peter R. W. Schaaphok (which I used as a reference) shows a sign in the window “SOUVENIR POSTCARDS – PETERSBURG VIEWS.” Another photo of the nearby Sawyer, Moses, and Hewitt store also had a sign “PETERSBURG VIEWS.”
The other side of the Nichols building (which originally would have been considered the back of the building) faced the highway and was much more visible to automobile travelers through town. This side of the building featured a soda fountain, complete with a counter and stools. As best I can remember its styling, I would estimate it was of 1930s – 1940s vintage. On Sunday mornings I would come here with Grandpa, and while he bought a half gallon of ice cream to have with dinner, I would spin around on the stools and buy a gumball out of the penny gumball machine. Mary Sawyer ran the store then.
Then, one sad day in 1961, things changed forever. An asphalt truck went out of control on the steep decline leading into the town center. Unable to negotiate the curve in the road, the truck went straight into the store, demolishing its corner. The soda fountain and counter were a total loss.
Grandpa went out with his camera and took this picture:
The incident was reported on the front page of Troy, NY’s evening newspaper, The Times Record, on September 22, 1961. The newspaper can be viewed here and features a photo taken from the same angle as Grandpa’s slide. The article continues here with a second photo showing the counter with the stool posts knocked askew. Unfortunately, a woman was sitting on one of the stools at the time of the incident and was buried in hot asphalt.
The corner of the store was rebuilt, but the soda fountain never was. In its place were some ordinary shelves for ordinary store merchandise. But the disappointment I felt then, on the eve of my sixth birthday, over the loss of the soda fountain seemed to predict the roadside enthusiast I would become.
A little farther to the east, the highway crosses the Little Hoosick River. The crossing was once a covered bridge, and later two concrete bridges (called “Upper bridge” and “Lower bridge” by the locals) were built in town. But when the Taconic Trail was built, the upper bridge was replaced with an especially ornate concrete bridge:
This bridge was rebuilt in recent years, retaining the original look as much as possible.
Along the right edge of the above postcard, you will notice a white building with roof protruding toward the road, with a gray concrete block building adjacent. These buildings were part of Hillcrest, a “Gas Food Lodging” complex for automobile travelers.
Here’s a postcard view of Hillcrest Cabins:
And here’s the white building in the bridge postcard, featuring a small restaurant with gas pumps out front. The concrete block building, with automobile service bays, came later. At some point (I’m guessing in the 1950s) they switched to selling Mobil instead of Shell gasoline. I remember the concrete block building painted white with “Mobilgas Mobiloil Mobilubrication” lettering and Mobil’s trademark red Pegasus.
You will notice this postcard states “Route 96,” which was the earlier route designation of the Taconic Trail. In order to create a more logical east-west routing from the Mohawk Trail to the Taconic Trail, the route number was changed to Route 2, the number used on the Mohawk Trail in Massachusetts. New York did this by swapping Routes 2 and 96, with the previous Route 2, from Rochester to Owego, becoming Route 96.
If a cabin at Hillcrest was too modest for your taste, there were billboards enticing travelers to travel a few more miles to Williamstown for their night’s stay. Petersburg once had billboards for the 1896 House, Berkshire Hills Motel, and the Williams Inn, the first lodging in the Treadway Inns chain. And all three of these remain in business today (although the Williams Inn is no longer a Treadway. The only remaining Treadway Inn using that name is in Owego, NY, by coincidence an end point on the present Route 96.)
Traveling further east, the Taconic Trail winds and climbs a few more miles to the top, directly on the New York – Massachusetts state line. There once was a summit house and observation tower, much like similar ones along the Mohawk Trail:
In 1962, Petersburg Pass Ski Area was opened and the summit house became a base lodge. The observation tower was still there, but was allowed to deteriorate and was no longer open to the public (another childhood disappointment.)
You can read more about Petersburg Pass Ski Area here.
The base lodge (original summit house) was destroyed by fire in the early 1970s. A new base lodge was built further from the highway and the ski area was reopened as Taconic Trails Ski Area, later Mount Raimer (after the owner.) The new lodge was also destroyed by fire and by 1980 the mountain’s days as a ski area were over.
Today, there’s ample parking at the summit, although there are no facilities. You can stop and enjoy the view or access several hiking trails. The Taconic Trail then continues down the other side of the mountain in Massachusetts, ending at US Route 7. Route 2 then follows Route 7 to the Williamstown town green a couple of miles to the north before heading east to North Adams and the Mohawk Trail.More news on the blog