You’re driving along, enjoying the sights, going from one state to another. You’ve seen the sign for “toll road,” but no booth. Hmm… must not have been for your road. Great! You get home from your trip, enjoy the photos with friends and family, then, one day, get a bill in the mail letting you know you owe blah, blah, blah amount for driving along a “for pay” road. Huh? But… YOU NEVER SAW THE TOLL BOOTH! That’s right, but it saw you thanks to automatic license plate readers (ALPR) and toll road technology that now captures who you are so it can bill you for traveling along the byways of the world without missing a beat.
Like the public phone booth, the toll booth — and the toll collector, actually — as we once knew it has become a distant memory, for the most part. Toll road technology has evolved exponentially since its earliest days and as we gain a deeper understanding of the benefits of this funding system as well as its issues, looking at how and why it began can help us see where it can go.
Early toll road technology
The practice of charging for passage through someone’s town, whether over land or water, goes back to before Aristotle. Financing the new world took initiative and innovation, and with broader travel came the possibility of a bigger and better town. More and more people began leaving their homes to venture out into other cities and countries to seek their fortune, trade goods, explore new lands, and more. The rulers of those regions saw an opportunity to manage the needs of their own empire with the funds they were able to collect from those using their roads to get from one place to another. Whether it was Germanic tribes charging tolls to cross various mountain passes or travelers on the Susa-Babylon highway forking over fees laid down by Ashurbanipal, King of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from 668 BC to 627 BC, to keep his kingdom thriving, moving from town to town could cost money and that money went towards upgrading, maintaining and constructing infrastructure and buildings of different communities.
This early road tolling spread throughout Europe especially, which initiated rudimentary toll technology as soon as roads were built in order to recoup construction costs, support continued maintenance and as general income for the town coffers. These fees weren’t just collected on the ground, but over water as well, with Scandinavia and the Netherlands among the top countries requiring payment to sail upon their waterways.
While the idea of charging travelers was an enterprising form of income for a community, it was also a vital one for those early days. Road maintenance was far different than what we know now. These were not asphalt, paved highways with some cracks in need of filling or new off-ramps to be built. Before Scottish engineers, Thomas Telford and John Loudon McAdam, put together materials to create actual pavement, other than the Appian Way, there were very few streets that weren’t simply dirt and loose rock. They were at the mercy of the elements and in order to be sure walkers, riders, coaches, and wagons were able to make their way, these muddy, eroding byways needed to be constantly fixed. The money had to come from somewhere and some sort of system needed to be put in place to get those travelers to stop and pay tolls.
Introducing the turnpike.
The Turnpike Trusts — England
The Industrial Revolution didn’t hit Britain until 1760, but 1700 signaled the start of huge manufacturing growth that would take off like gangbusters over the next 50 years. The mining of coal was a massive business and transporting it across land that became a muddy mush after a rain was virtually impossible. Not only that, with the rise in factories and more consumer goods being produced, delivery of product to customers was vital and it soon became apparent that how these roads were being maintained — and even built — needed to change because merchants and factory owners were losing money hand over fist due to their impassibility. These businessmen went to Parliament appealing for its help, which then led to a discussion about how to make this beneficial for all. Yes, it was necessary for roads to be upgraded, and, again, that would mean a rise in profits for businesses due to the fact they would now be able to get their goods to where they needed to go. However, the only way to guarantee roads would actually be maintained was to make the business of doing so profitable and Parliament understood this.
The solution was to suggest these businessmen form companies called Turnpike Trusts. Parliament granted these trusts permission to build and maintain roads then charge a toll for their use in order to make doing so worthwhile. Between 1700 and 1750, over 400 Turnpike Trust companies were established by Parliament. Now, turnpikes were called this because they literally had a pike blocking the entrance to the rest of a thoroughfare until the toll was paid. Once the rider, driver, or walker handed over their money, the pike was either lifted or turned to the side and passage was possible. These turnpikes sprouted up all over England and while some roads were better maintained and constructed than others with these new trusts, the general consensus was the system was working.
United States Road Innovation
When America was young, roads were managed and kept up by the individuals who lived near that particular stretch. They would charge a fee to use that road then put those funds toward maintaining it. By the mid-late 18th century, companies were created for that purpose, and organized road tolling was a way of financing the upkeep and creation of these byways. The 1790s would bring about the first ever road built specifically for toll collection with the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike that connected the two cities in Pennsylvania.
Toll road building in the United States was done by private companies in its earliest years. Although they weren’t necessarily all that profitable, they did lay the groundwork for the American road system to come. There were three specific events in tolling for the States — The Turnpike Era from 1792 to 1845, the Plank Road Boom from 1847 to 1853, and the Toll Road of the Far West from 1850 to 1902 — that led to where the U.S. is today.
The turnpikes of the 1790s to 1845 were influenced by England’s toll system. Attempts at publicly operated toll roads had failed miserably to this point and toll evasion was rampant. The success of Britain’s private system encouraged those in the U.S. and private enterprise was enlisted starting in 1792 with the first private turnpike — Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The ability to travel across these roads to engage in interstate commerce appealed greatly to merchants from across the nation, and the lawmakers in those states began to enjoy the benefits. This led to a boom of these chartered turnpikes and by 1845, the number of managed roads incorporated was 1,562, and between 50 – 60 percent of them were actually built and operated via tolls.
Plank Road Boom
By around the mid-1840s, many of the toll roads from the Turnpike Era reverted to free use due to more travelers moving by canal and railroad, and these highways fell into disarray. Paving with the new innovation of macadam was very costly — $3,500 per mile — and there was a huge need for more and sturdier roads. Wooden planks — introduced to Canada by Russia — were incorporated as a replacement and the plank road was born. These were relatively simple to construct and they began sprouting up all over the U.S. Policymakers relaxed restrictions on the toll roads that may have hamstrung those of the turnpike era. Tolls were raised, there were shorter distances between toll stations and more tolls were collected from locals. Between 1847, when the boom began, to 1853 when it ended, over 10,000 miles of plank roads were built along the middle and eastern portion of the United States with more than 3,500 of those miles in New York alone. Because the planks only lasted between 4-5 years before having to be replaced — far less than the 12 years both landowners and cities were promised — by 1853, construction of new roads was stopped.
Toll Roads of the Far West
During the same time that toll roads were becoming more sophisticated in the Eastern United States, settlements to the West were transient and incorporating passable byways wasn’t a priority. Then in 1853 new laws handing over regulatory oversight to county governments were passed. Counties did not interfere with where toll roads were located and allowed the private companies to operate pretty much on their own. Across California, Nevada, Wyoming, Oregon, and Colorado, these privately owned highways grew fairly unchecked until the advent of the bicycle and more fervent use of the automobile.
The fall of the toll road
First, it was the bicycle. These two- — and sometimes three- — wheeled wonders required better maintained and structured roads upon which to travel. Reworking the nation’s byways to accommodate them became a priority after cyclists began rallying for renovations. Then came the automobile and when it started taking over the road, tolling was felt to be counterproductive. There was a perceived inconvenience for drivers to have to stop their cars every few miles to pay the fees.
Communities also began to rail against the private toll companies, feeling that as infrastructure was becoming more of a priority — the advent of motor vehicles meant the need for smoother pavement upon which to travel — the government was required to step in to oversee the needs of its citizens. By 1916, U.S. toll roads had diminished in numbers and they began to fall by the wayside save for select areas.
By 1956, the Federal-Aid Highway Act was signed into existence by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, creating 41,000 miles of highway and becoming the roadways now known in the U.S. Over 2,100 new miles of toll roads were added the following year with the express mandate that no federal dollars would be used for their construction or upkeep. These were all to be managed through public and private partnerships between corporate toll companies and local governments, and in the current 46,730-mile system there are now 2,900 miles of toll roads.
As you can see there once was a time when tolling was considered not profitable enough to warrant focusing on the practice as a truly viable option for needed income. These days, however, the nice-to-have for many countries is now being viewed as a must-have by some as infrastructure projects seek funding and communities turn to charging for different forms of travel in order to finance them.
The logistics of charging tolls
There are a variety of ways tolls have been and are charged. In the early days, tolls were levied based on the size and type of the transport — on foot, on horseback, one-horse wagon, two-horse wagon, etc. Nowadays, that’s called Automated Vehicle Classification — charging different vehicles unique fees based on the automobile type stored in their electronic records. Fees could also be based on specific access — for example, entering a city, going into farmland, etc. — or the type of infrastructure — a bridge, a tunnel, etc. These practices are still done today, however, how we travel has changed.
There are commonly three methods for charging tolls and three for collecting it:
TIME-BASED AND ACCESS
A driver pays for driving at a certain time of day or specific access to a normally restricted zone for a period of time.
MOTORWAY OR OTHER INFRASTRUCTURE
A costly type of infrastructure, such as a bridge, tunnel, mountain pass, for example, charges a fee to be paid when entering that “structure.”
DISTANCE OR AREA
A charge per the distance or area that is driven.
TOLL — GATE/BOOTH OPERATOR — OPEN
Entry is paid at a toll plaza — manually or electric.
TOLL — GATE/BOOTH OPERATOR — CLOSED
The toll is paid upon entry and exit of a specific toll area/road.
This is all electric, no toll booths, no special lanes, no toll collectors, and processed via ALPR/ANPR or RFID at strategic locations.
Modern toll roads use all three of these methods, and sometimes in combination. In addition to payment at the time that you drive through the toll site, there are options to pre-pay for a toll — basically, have an account from which charges are pulled — and post-pay, receiving a bill after you’ve passed through an Open-Road Tolling ETC system.
Toll road technology in the new age of need
The evolution of toll road technology goes as far back as roads themselves. Let’s take a quick look at how this form of financing infrastructure grew and innovated:
The Turnpike Act is passed by British Parliament in 1663 and initiated in 3 counties as a test. This:
- Allowed magistrates in these counties to charge people for using their roads then take the money raised to maintain them
- Opened the door for the Turnpike Trusts starting in 1706 in England when toll gates/turnpikes were expanded and built, allowing the public to invest in the private trusts
- Led to purveyors of livestock raising consumer prices as the transport of the animals became expensive due to tolls
- Created laws against tampering with or destroying turnpikes, making the offenses punishable by death
- Established a need to install pikes or spikes to the gates — hence the name “turnpike” — to deter people from jumping over to avoid paying tolls
Tolling goes electric
In 1959, an electronic tolling system was proposed as a way to control traffic congestion by Canadian William Vickrey, Nobel Prize Winner for Economics. He envisioned a transponder being placed in every car with corresponding sensors installed in or on highways to pick up the signal to charge accordingly. This was not only to cut down on congestion but also labor costs and boost the economy. The technology wasn’t quite there although tests were done in the 1960s and 70s with transponders placed on the undercarriage of certain cars and readers embedded under the surface of portions of the highway.
It would be several years before any country would actually implement electronic toll collection (ETC) with Norway becoming the first in the world in 1987 working with traditional toll booths — cars with transponders would pull up, have their transponder read for an automatic charge, then drive on. The thought was convenience and cutting labor costs as well. By 1991, the Norwegian City of Trondheim introduced the world’s first fully unaided electronic toll collection system. There are now 25 sites in the country under the name of AutoPass — an RFID tag system that allows cars to drive through toll points without having to stop at upwards of 100 km/h.
The U.S.’s first ETC was installed by the Dallas North Texas Tollway in 1991. These were similar to Norway’s first system with transponders keyed to readers at toll stops. Roll-through systems and open road tolling soon followed around the country.
Analysis showed that these ETC systems Improved traffic flow, and were less expensive to build and operate than traditional toll plaza. What changed from manned systems were fewer toll operators, and the ability to, in some areas, drive full-speed through open road areas but still be charged due to Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) through an RFID tag on a transponder, or ALPR.
Toll road technology takes off around the world
Today, most countries around the world have some form of toll collection and many of them are electronically based. While there is no universal system for every part of the globe, some areas do have interoperability that goes across boundaries. Toll road technology is constantly innovating to make it easier to travel these roads and more difficult to evade the fees. When ETC first started, some systems affixed barcodes to vehicles that were scanned by sensors at toll stations. However, over time these became dirty, got old and scuffed, and were hard to read. The different technologies these days include:
Cars with RFID tags have their information read by posted RF readers — whether at a toll station or at strategic points along the highway — that then send a bill — usually monthly — or take fees out of a maintained account to the customer. Toll collection services such as FasTrak and EZ Pass are programs that use the transponder/RF reader system.
We’ve discussed these before. Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPR) or Automatic Number Plate Readers (ANPR) are strategically placed cameras that are able to read your vehicle registration number — also known as your license plate — as you drive. They derive information from this that makes it possible for you to be charged a toll without having to go through a toll booth.
Companies such as Bluedot Innovation are now providing app-based toll tracking as an alternative to having a transponder attached to your windshield. Through the app, you can pay and pass through toll booths without stopping. You download the app, put in your payment and vehicle information, and whenever you pass through a supported ETC station, you receive a statement based on geolocation.
Evading, bypassing and expanding tolls
Toll evasion is a huge issue all over the world. The more electronic and innovative fee collection becomes, the harder it is to avoid payment if you’re traveling on toll roads. As mentioned, moving through a toll crossing without paying or destroying it can incur severe fines and even criminal charges. However, there is another practice that has been around for decades that isn’t illegal. It’s called shunpiking.
Shunpiking is the act of finding alternative routes to bypass tolls on superhighways. Now, this is used by many simply as a way to explore areas off the beaten path of various locations, discover little known or hidden gems rather than a way to avoid paying tolls. However, it is also a practice enlisted to get out of the fees as well, and while it loses valuable money to these different regions, it is not against the law nor is it compromising the toll system itself.
As more and more cars get on the road, especially in the U.S., more toll roads are being recommended to finance the crumbling infrastructure all over the nation. While a bill that would put money toward rebuilding America’s highways has been discussed, nothing has been passed as yet nor is it clear just how that money will be spent across the various states when it is.
In January 2018, National Public Radio (NPR) reported on this increase not only in the number of toll roads but the amount charged on existing infrastructure in order to pay for roads projects. Across the world, drivers are having to pay to motor on their country’s highways in order to finance new construction and lower street congestion. Certain areas of the world rely heavily on congestion pricing — a fee to drive during high traffic times — in addition to tolling. This is something that is being floated in various areas across the United States. The idea has merit, but as NPR showed, it also has a great many detractors and has raised concerns.
Many fear that raising tolls and adding more “for pay” roads will lead to higher traffic in suburban areas as well as place an undue burden on lower-income drivers. Some believe charging driving fees has not truly been shown to assist a city or state with their infrastructure. What next, then? The answer may be in creating better public transportation, a real launch of autonomous vehicles for private purchase and use, dedicated travel lanes for bikes, buses, pedestrians, and ride-share/ride-hailing services. And, then again, tolls may be an option whose time has come due to innovations in the system and streamlining its process to make the economics behind it more beneficial.
To toll or not to toll?
As transportation continues to evolve and as countries work that much harder to get lower emissions, congestion, and traffic fatalities, so to will the role of tolling. Is it the best choice to revive failing infrastructures? It bears watching.