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Toll Roads: Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em, You’ll Probably See More of ‘Em

Drivers have a love-hate relationship with toll roads. If you frequently drive on these roads, you likely fall on one side of the debate. People want perfectly smooth roads free of potholes, but no one wants to pay for them.

Unfortunately, no matter how you feel about them, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. The sad reality is that there’s a good chance you’ll see more of them.

Today, we’ll look closer at roads that make you pay a fee to get from point A to point B.

Why The US Toll System Is So Complicated - Cheddar Explains

What Is a Toll Road?

Toll roads are highways that require drivers to pay a fee to use them. Private companies typically pay for the construction and ongoing maintenance of these roads through the fees they collect.

Costs for tolls can vary considerably and typically depend on the road and the size of the vehicle driving through the toll. These roads may be more convenient, faster, or in better condition, but they can get expensive. Drivers who frequently travel on them can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars in tolls yearly.

We have traveled the US and Europe extensively by road and encountered many tolls. In general, Europe has many more tolls for the highway systems and they generally cost more than the US. However, if you drive a large vehicle, tolls can get expensive anywhere. We once had a toll on the Indiana tollway that cost us $90 in one day with our motorhome towing a trailer!

toll road entrance booths
Toll road fees help to maintain the quality of the roads.

History of the Toll Road

Toll roads have a long history dating back to ancient times. The earliest toll roads were constructed in the Middle East, where they were used to fund the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.

In Europe, toll roads were first introduced in the 14th century. These roads were often maintained by local lords and were used to generate revenue for the upkeep of the roads and the surrounding land. Many times individuals would be charged by the number of hooves or feet as many travelers were moving animals. Later wagon size and weight became a standard for toll charges.

In the United States, toll roads were first constructed in the early 19th century. The first toll road in the US was the Lancaster Turnpike, which opened in 1795 in Pennsylvania. The turnpike was a 62-mile road that was built and maintained by private companies, which charged tolls to travelers in order to recoup their investments.

During the 19th century, toll roads became more common in the US, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest regions. These roads were often built by private companies or local governments, and they were used to generate revenue for road maintenance and construction.

In the early 20th century, the US government began to invest heavily in public road infrastructure, and the use of toll roads declined and highways became known as “freeways”. However, toll roads continued to be built in some parts of the country, particularly in urban areas where the cost of construction was high.

Today, toll roads remain an important source of revenue for many transportation agencies, and they are often used to fund large infrastructure projects such as new highways and bridges. However, toll roads are also a source of controversy, as many people believe that they unfairly burden low-income drivers and create traffic congestion.

Pro Tip: Don’t say we didn’t warn you! We think These Roads Are the Worst.

The History of Toll Roads | The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation

Why Are There So Many Toll Roads?

Toll roads exist all across the country and serve various purposes. During the 1980s, the government needed to catch up in its efforts to maintain the highway infrastructure. Instead of raising local taxes to fund the roads, charging drivers using them was a better option.

The use of tolls has changed considerably over the last decade or so. Some roads require all drivers to pay the toll to drive on the road. However, there are some areas where drivers must pay tolls to use express lanes. As the use of toll roads has changed, they’ve become more common across the country.

Additionally, officials initially designed many toll road programs to be temporary solutions. However, they became permanent at some point. When the toll program collected enough revenue to pay for the road, many roads needed repair, which meant continuing the toll programs. Since private companies own many of these roads, they rely on the funds to cover ongoing maintenance expenses.

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More Toll Roads Are Probably Coming

Unfortunately, tolls aren’t going away anytime soon. If anything, we’re about to see a tremendous increase in toll booths. This is largely because the highway infrastructure across the country isn’t getting any younger. Damages to these roads only worsen, and increasing taxes typically doesn’t sit well with voters.

Additionally, the cost of installing and running toll roads is dropping considerably. This lower cost is primarily due to technological advancements that allow companies to need attendants no longer. They can electronically monitor and bill drivers using their roads via high-tech options.

Many areas with an increased population are experiencing more congestion on their highways. For example, Portland, Oregon, has plans to use variable-rate pricing on tolls for the Abernethy and Tualatin River bridges as early as 2024.

Aerial view of toll road
License plate readers and passes have made it possible to cruise through tolls quickly.

How Do You Pay Tolls?

In the past, paying tolls meant stopping for a quick chat with a toll booth attendant while you paid your toll. Some tolls allow you to deposit change into a machine to pay the toll. While these are effective ways to settle your tolls, they aren’t efficient.

All types of industries have benefited from technological advancements over the last several decades, including the toll industry. Technology enables these companies to charge customers through car transponders or high-tech cameras that read license plates. Many offer discounts on tolls for drivers with transponders who frequently use their roads.

Uni transponder unit in window of vehicle
This is the toll transponder we use, the UNI pass. It works on most US tollways.

These technological advancements help reduce commute times and congestion and assist those who cannot pay their toll. Drivers who do not pay tolls can expect a letter indicating the violation in the mail from the managing company. It will typically provide a way for drivers to pay the toll online or an address where drivers can send the money they owe.

Violators receive a letter in the mail that typically includes administrative and processing fees. However, the longer you don’t pay the violation, the more fees and penalties you’ll normally face. Some agencies will turn the violations to the state for collection, which can lead to severe legal troubles, possibly even jail.

Toll invoice
Toll roads will send you an invoice if you don’t have a transponder or stop at a toll booth.

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Are Tolls More Expensive for RVs?

RVers quickly learn that almost everything is more expensive regarding RVs, including tolls. One famous bridge in New York, Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, is a toll that RVers and large vehicle drivers can’t take lightly.

For a standard passenger vehicle, this toll typically costs anywhere from $5.75 to $7.48. Crossing the bridge in a motorhome costs anywhere from $14 to $16, depending on the number of axles. However, those towing a trailer can receive a toll bill that’s almost $30.

It’s a standard practice for most toll roads to charge more vehicles towing trailers. In some areas, there are alternative options to avoid tolls. However, the Cuomo Bridge is one example where there are few options for drivers of big rigs.

Getting ticket at toll road
In europe we have paid up to 80$ for a long days drive on a tollway in an RV!

Pros of Toll Roads

While drivers may hate toll roads, they have several benefits. One of the biggest pros is that it doesn’t raise local taxes. The drivers using them are the ones footing the bill for their creation and ongoing maintenance. It allows local agencies to create highway infrastructures without financially impacting drivers who won’t use them.

Since funds from tolls often transfer to the highway infrastructure, this results in better road conditions. However, as you’ve probably experienced, this doesn’t mean the roads are perfect. You’ll still find cracks, potholes, and other imperfections occasionally.

Another benefit of toll roads is their ability to reduce traffic congestion and provide drivers with faster travel times. If drivers can find alternate routes around toll roads, many will take them. This helps spread traffic, especially during peak travel times for those commuting to and from work.

Cons of Toll Roads

Most people view toll roads negatively because of their higher cost. For example, it’s not uncommon for many residents living in Central Florida to have hefty monthly toll bills, especially those in the suburbs of Orlando who commute into the city for work. While the roads may save them time, they won’t save drivers money.

Another negative side of toll roads is that they often divert traffic. Drivers look for any way to avoid paying tolls, and many GPS units will do the thinking for them. This often results in excessive traffic on side roads and increases the wear and tear on these roads. Some of these roads cut through neighborhoods and other communities, creating dangers for residents dealing with drivers zooming through the area.

While toll roads may be beneficial, they’re not an option for every driver. Some drivers struggling to make ends meet and keep gas in their car can’t afford to pay tolls. As a result, many people feel there is unequal access for low-income drivers on these roads.

congested road traffic
Toll roads can cause excessive traffic on side roads from people trying to avoid having to pay.

Which State Has the Most Toll Roads?

While there are toll roads nationwide, Florida has the most toll roads. Florida has over 700 miles of toll roads, 153 in Orange County. Considering the tremendous number of tourists visiting the area, it’s no wonder they require drivers to pay to use the streets. Ohio, New York, and New Jersey also have abundant toll roads.

On the other hand, several states are without a single mile of toll roads. These states include Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. However, some states consider toll roads as a potential option.

How Do You Avoid Tolls in the US?

If you want to avoid tolls, you will need to research your route. A U-turn at a toll booth may not always be possible, especially at automated kiosks. However, some toll areas have options for drivers to turn around to avoid paying an unexpected toll.

Many GPS units have built-in settings allowing drivers to avoid tolls whenever possible. Depending on the route, the savings may take longer or use more fuel. However, drivers can avoid many toll roads. Unfortunately, regarding bridges and tunnels with tolls, avoiding them may not always be convenient or financially wise.

Toll Roads Aren’t Going Anywhere 

Toll roads are an effective and efficient solution for creating and maintaining roads. They’re a small price for drivers to pay to have the best road conditions and drive times possible. They’re not going anywhere soon, and they’re something that some of us will have to deal with more than others in the future. If you don’t like paying tolls, make sure you turn on the “avoid tolls” setting on your GPS unit.

Would you go out of your way to avoid a toll road? Tell us in the comments!

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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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Dale Jag

Tuesday 28th of March 2023

States like Florida always brag about their low taxes on gas and income, but then hit you with all these other "hidden" taxes. If I pay a gas tax, then why am I paying for a toll road. Seems like the state is profiting on the gas tax while driving on a toll road. This should be illegal. You should have to pay twice!!!