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Toll Roads And Highways
by Ruby Bayan

When the approaching road sign includes the word "Toll," you know you're about to enter a section of the highway where you have to pay for access. You know you need to be ready with cash or a valid pass -- because you'll be paying not only for a well-maintained roads and convenient facilities, but also for roadside services like expedient first aid, State Police help, disabled vehicle dispatch, quality directions, and other assistance. All this for just about a couple of cents per mile. Welcome to the toll roads in America!


Highway Authorities

Also called tollways, turnpikes, thruways, parkways and expressways, toll roads are managed by independent Highway Authorities created through state legislation. Their main mission is to acquire, construct, maintain, repair and operate self-liquidating toll road projects. They raise capital for construction projects by selling bonds to private investors, and in order to repay or retire these bonds, they collect tolls from the motorists using the roads.

Highway Authorities and toll roads have existed as far back as the late 40s. The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) is an instrumentality of the State of Oklahoma created by the state legislature by statute in 1947 for the purpose of constructing, operating and maintaining the Turner Turnpike.

The New York State Thruway Authority, an independent public corporation, was created in 1950 by the New York State Legislature. It oversees the Governor Thomas E. Dewey Thruway, the 641-mile superhighway crossing New York State, and the longest toll superhighway system in the United States.

Two years later, the New Jersey Highway Authority, which operates the 173-mile Garden State Parkway was established by the New Jersey State Legislature. Soon after, highway authorities were created in most of the other states in a concerted effort to provide the best road experience to all Americans.

The Authorities do not receive tax money to manage the toll roads. Toll revenues pay all the operation and maintenance costs, plus repay the bonds issued to finance the construction. The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority says, "if tolls in the Oklahoma Turnpike System were eliminated, the State would have to spend at least $37-$57 million per year from gasoline taxes to maintain existing turnpikes, necessitating a tax increase."

In New York, the 325 members of the State Police patrol the Thruway, doing emergency work at the scene of accidents, assisting thousands of motorists each year. The cost of the service, i.e., salaries, cars, uniforms, and equipment, totaling approximately $21.5 million a year, is borne by the toll collected by the New York State Thruway Authority.

Therefore, because toll roads are self-liquidating, federal planners can use tax dollars to maintain the non-toll Interstate Highways that complement the existing tollways.

Easy Access

To facilitate toll collection, strategically located toll booths or "toll plazas" act as gates which open when the right amount of toll is paid by the motorists. Toll collection is done in several ways:

  • Staffed Booths -- Toll collectors are stationed in booths to receive toll payments, issue change and receipts, and control the lifting of the gate.
  • Coin Baskets -- Mechanical catch devices are installed in lanes that automatically open when the correct change is thrown in.
  • Electronic/Express Passes -- A high-tech toll collection system that reads a tag attached to the vehicle and automatically deducts toll from a pre-paid account.

With the advancement of technology, toll road authorities have integrated automated collection systems to allow motorists to pay toll while cruising through at highway speed. Drivers don't have to slow down, roll down windows, fumble for change, and transact payment. There are no delays and fuel wastage from waiting in line. Some systems even boast of up to 10 percent savings from the regular toll.

These electronic systems are installed in toll booth lanes. With an antenna, the system picks up signals from tags that motorists purchase (as pre-paid accounts), and install in their vehicles. Depending on the toll road system, a tag is attached to the license plate, windshield or window. When the vehicle passes through the toll lane and a signal is detected, the system automatically deducts the toll amount from the motorist's account and lifts the gate to allow access.

Penalties, like administrative fines and account suspension, are imposed on motorists who speed through the automated toll lanes, evade toll, or do not have sufficient funds in their express pass accounts. The system can easily detect violators because a high-speed camera snaps a picture of the vehicle's license plate.

To name a few of the growing roster of electronic toll collection systems in the country, there's FasTrak in California, E-Zpass in New York, TollTag in Texas, I-Pass in Illinois, and EPass in Florida.

Toll Rates

Rates vary from one toll road to another, as dictated by the state Authority operating the highway. Many factors influence the amount of toll charged to the motorists, the most obvious ones being the difference in rates according to distance traveled, and the type of vehicle.

The Transportation Corridor Agencies of California provides an online toll calculator that allows a motorist to check how much toll has to be paid between specific distances, while driving any of five classes of vehicles:

  • Automobile, motorcycle, or any 2-axle, 4-tire truck
  • 3-axle truck or bus and Class 1 vehicles with trailer
  • 4-axle combination truck
  • 5-axle combination truck
  • 6-axle or greater combination truck
The Ohio Turnpike Commission, on the other hand, determines toll rates according distance, and the gross weight and overall length of the vehicle. Most other tollways define nine different classes of vehicles with different toll rates.

For more detailed information on toll rates in your vicinity, visit the United States Toll Facilities Website and click on the operating Authority of your state.

Drive Safely

So, as you drop your coins or ease through the express lanes of the next toll plaza, remember that your little contribution is helping pay for the smooth roads, the rest areas, the salaries of the State Highway Patrol, and the emergency roadside assistance you may need.

But bear in mind, too, that your awareness and participation in the overall safety of the highways is essential. Observe the speed limits; buckle up; turn on your headlights when windshield wipers are necessary; do not stop on the travel lanes; never back up, and don't pick up hitchhikers. Drive safely.

For more information, visit:
The Toll Roads of America
Electronic Toll Collection and Traffic Management Website

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