Toll Roads

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Scott Benjamin: Hi, everybody. Welcome to Car Stuff. I'm Scott Benjamin, the auto editor here at

Ben Bowlin: And my name is Ben Bowlin. I am a video writer here at the same website. It never gets old.

Scott Benjamin: No.

Ben Bowlin: Scott, you live up north of the city, so you get to pass one of our cities - would we call it famous?

Scott Benjamin: Infamous?

Ben Bowlin: One of our city's infamous landmarks, a road called Interstate 400, which is in transition technically. Originally, this road was built to be a toll road.

Scott Benjamin: It still is a toll road.

Ben Bowlin: The story that we all heard in Atlanta was that this would be a toll road only for such as a time as was sufficient for it to break even, defined as offsetting the cost it took to construct it.

Scott Benjamin: Sure.

Ben Bowlin: Which seemed like a great idea - such a great idea, in fact, that they have yet to make this a non-toll road?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. I know a little bit about this, too. We have a couple of articles here about why that happened and why it's still a toll road. It makes sense, but it's one of those things like they're trying to catch up with the cost. And having to do that, they had to spend more money. And to spend more money they needed to keep the tolls up longer. So it's like it just keeps feeding ourselves. So it looks like we're going to be stuck with our toll road for at least another couple of years.

Ben Bowlin: It's either a very poor calculation on someone's part or absolutely brilliant.

Scott Benjamin: I don't know how to look at it. Is it a strategic failure or a strategic triumph? I don't know. You're right. That's one example and there's many examples across the US of toll roads. Of course, people probably know what we're talking about, roads that you pay to drive on.

Ben Bowlin: Alternately known as a turnpike.

Scott Benjamin: That's right. What else - turnpike, toll road, toll route.

Ben Bowlin: There's a toll corridor or something people talk about. Now astute listeners will remember, Scott, that earlier in a different episode you and I briefly talked about the origin of the word turnpike!

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. I have that in front of me.

Ben Bowlin: Oh, let's run it down again.

Scott Benjamin: I have the etymology breakdown of this thing. It comes from the early 15th century. It meant a spiked road barrier for defense. And it comes from the words turn and pike, which was a shaft. It meant a piece of timber that was laying across the road. It was on an axis. And you had to pay a toll in order to use the road. And they would turn the pike out of the way and allow you to pass through onto the road. That was probably 1540 or somewhere around in there. And they borrowed horses from foot roads and that's why they were able to - they had to put up a gate and say, "No, you can't travel on this road. This is for foot traffic only." Well, it led to and idea that it meant a barrier to stop passage until the toll was paid. And they called it a roll with a tollgate, which was -

Ben Bowlin: Part of the evolution.

Scott Benjamin: And that came around to the 1670s, I believe. Then in 1745 they shortened the word to turnpike road. It's a little convoluted here what was going on, but basically we got to the point where it's a turnpike. And the turnpike now that we have originally meant the tollbooth! Now it means the road itself.

Ben Bowlin: The road entire.

Scott Benjamin: And that didn't come until the 1850s.

Ben Bowlin: Which is interesting? Hopefully, there are other people that were surprised as I was to learn how old toll road technology is, or at least the idea. And one thing that also will surprise a lot of people, I hope - that's the point of the show. The United States actually has a very long and storied history with toll roads.

Scott Benjamin: Yes, very long.

Ben Bowlin: Because people will usually remember the date of our country's independence in 1776, and Scott, I want to ask you to guess when the first toll road was built but you already know. So let's just break it down - the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike was built in 1792.

Scott Benjamin: Holy cow.

Ben Bowlin: So toll roads are way older than cars, older than the interstate system, older than us.

Scott Benjamin: By far.

Ben Bowlin: Well -

Scott Benjamin: Okay, me. They're a lot older than you, not so much older than me.

Ben Bowlin: So this thing, if you think about it, was almost a model of good estimates and well-done building. It only took about a couple of years to complete. And people just thought this was the bee's knees of highways, right?

Scott Benjamin: I love when you say bee's knees.

Ben Bowlin: Thanks, man. That's for you. And the crazy thing about it is that this was actually very successful.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, up until this point, roads had been free. And suddenly they had to adjust to the idea that, "Hey, I'm going to have to pay to use this stretch of road that I was able to walk over." Well, actually it was probably a new road at that point - somewhere convenient. It was a convenient route. Rather than taking the long way around, this is a straight direct path right through. Therefore, you're going to pay a little bit extra to have that privilege or ability to go straight to where you were going to go. It was a convenience.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, and you got your money's worth. It went over 60 miles - 62 miles. Eventually, the state picked it up and then it became part of what we call the Lincoln Highway and US-30 today.

Scott Benjamin: No kidding.

Ben Bowlin: No kidding.

Scott Benjamin: US-30, really? Okay.

Ben Bowlin: I've got some jokes later, but that part was serious. And so let's fast forward a little bit. We have also talked about the good folks who have largely built the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate System.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, yeah. That was a good one.

Ben Bowlin: We're talking about Herbert Fairbank and Thomas MacDonald. Interesting story, these guys thought toll roads were lame.

Scott Benjamin: Really?

Ben Bowlin: Well, they didn't say the word lame, but -

Scott Benjamin: Why did they think that? Because they're not federally funded free roads or what?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, it's kind of like some people's attitude with the Internet, or anything where there is one free service offered and then a paid alternative. The question, which is logical, is why would anyone pay to take this one route when there are parallel free routes? But of course, you've already got the nail on the head with convenience. I just want to show you how poorly they estimated this. These guys said, MacDonald and Fairbank, that the Philadelphia to Pittsburgh Toll Corridor would carry a little bit more than 700 cars a day, maybe.

Scott Benjamin: 700 a day?

Ben Bowlin: Um-hum. And that was the official estimate of the US Bureau of Public Roads. And oh buddy, they were wrong.

Scott Benjamin: How wrong?

Ben Bowlin: Way wrong. I don't have the exact estimate now, but needless to say it was well over.

Scott Benjamin: Traffic was pretty intense.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: You mentioned something here - why would people pay for a road when there's alternate roads that you don't have to pay for. Forgive me if I'm breaking out of the history of this thing here. We're coming up into modern day -

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, we got it.

Scott Benjamin: - with what I'm mentioning here. I had never heard of this. It's just my own ignorance on this subject. I just recently found out that there were optional toll lanes in the United States - lots of them.

Ben Bowlin: That is news to me.

Scott Benjamin: See, I didn't know this. And that's because we don't live in a state that has these optional toll lanes already, but we might.

Ben Bowlin: Go on.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it may be happening here in Georgia. They're talking about adding optional toll lanes along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee Counties, and that's where - I-75 comes straight through from all the way up in Michigan all the way down to Florida. A lot of people make that trip, but there may be some optional toll lanes coming soon to that area. Just to give you and idea of how expensive these projects are, there was an elaborate project planned - it's backed down from this - but the first project that was planned was priced between $1.8 billion and $4 billion. I had never heard of anything like this. The DOT rarely spends that much money on any single road project at all. But they have backed it down to something like $900 million to $1.1 billion - the new estimate for the toll road.

Ben Bowlin: A billion - geez.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it's around a billion dollars. And $350 million of that is taxpayer money. The rest would be private and collected through tolls. The road would fund itself. I don't know what the cost would be. It doesn't mention it in this article. There's an example here from Indiana.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, let's go to Indiana.

Scott Benjamin: They're considering an optional toll lane also on I-69, which goes right into Indianapolis. Not only is this an optional toll lane, it would be a variable dollar amount that you would pay as you go through. So depending on traffic and the time of day it could vary from one to three dollars.

Ben Bowlin: Like a real time congestion tax.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. And that's not unusual, either. I had no idea that this was happening. There's these variable rates that are going on everywhere else. It says, "Express toll lanes aren't a new idea. They're used in San Diego, Orange County, California, Salt Lake City, Houston, Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, Miami. They're under construction right now in Dallas, Washington D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area." And we might be able to add Atlanta and Indiana to this as well. And I think there are probably more out there that I just don't have in this article.

Ben Bowlin: Or more that haven't gone public yet.

Scott Benjamin: The idea behind this is - and why would you pay it, right? It's the exact same stretch of road. It gives you the benefit that an HOV lane gives to people right now.

Ben Bowlin: That's what I was just thinking of.

Scott Benjamin: But you could do it individually. You could drive it alone. And the other thing, the people in this example said they could actually see it working. Let's say there's a day when they're coming home from work and they don't know if it's going to take them 20 minutes or an hour to get home, and they've got to pick up the kids at the daycare center. And there's that wide-open express lane. If I pay three dollars, I'm going to make it there and save myself the late fee at the daycare facility. Or you've got a doctor's appointment and you have to get near home for that. A lot of people say that it may be called the Lexus Lane. It's going to create have and have not commuter separation. And that's not the idea. What they find more often than not in these optional lanes is that you do get the people who are simply running late or parents that have to be somewhere at a ballgame or something like that.

Ben Bowlin: Or the daycare cutoff.

Scott Benjamin: It's not what they think. It's not just the wealthy who say, "I'm going to drive in my own lane."

Ben Bowlin: And a lot of that depends on the dollar amount of the toll.

Scott Benjamin: True. Because some of the tolls can go way up in some regions! I was looking at some here and some of these tolls are in the $10.00 range just for stretches of road, not -

Ben Bowlin: Not the whole thing.

Scott Benjamin: I'm not talking from edge of state to edge of state. I'm talking a short distance between exits.

Ben Bowlin: Like every ten miles or something.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. If you were to follow the toll route entirely to work, you may end up paying $25.00 to get to work. Our Georgia toll here that we were just talking about - 50 cents!

Ben Bowlin: Okay, but let me say - I'm going to go on the record with this, Scott. It is so frustrating to have to dig through your car for some change.

Scott Benjamin: Are we going to have to fight here again?

Ben Bowlin: No.

Scott Benjamin: Are you sure? Let me ask you this, Ben. Do you get up to the front of the lane and then dig around in your car and try to find the money?

Ben Bowlin: No. If I haven't found it by the time I hit the exit before the toll road, I take the exit.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, good. I'm glad to hear that. Because I thought we might come to fisticuffs.

Ben Bowlin: No, that's - I understand it happens to some people, but I'm not a line hold uperer. I don't hold up lines.

Scott Benjamin: That's good. I didn't think you were, but I had to ask. You just never know. I encounter that every single day on my way home.

Ben Bowlin: Really?

Scott Benjamin: Not directly in front of me all the time. It happens sometimes. The person will realize they got in the change only lane and they have to get out to the cashier. But they have to open the door -

Ben Bowlin: And go across -

Scott Benjamin: - and go to another lane, which is terribly dangerous. I wish they wouldn't do that. The other one I've seen recently, a lot of people will get out and ask the person behind them if they can just borrow a dollar.

Ben Bowlin: Okay -

Scott Benjamin: That's not borrowing. You're never going to see it again.

Ben Bowlin: You're never going to be Facebook friends.

Scott Benjamin: No. But I assume they're just paying for yours also if you give them a dollar.

Ben Bowlin: Maybe.

Scott Benjamin: But whatever, it's frustrating to me that that happens.

Ben Bowlin: But we can't deny that toll systems, overall in this country, are really effective. I think just between 1850 and 1902 over 100 toll roads were built.

Scott Benjamin: Really?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. Financially, it's a very good decision for policy makers - at least in the short term. It allows you to get a quality of road that might otherwise put your municipality or region in debt. And it does still put them in debt, but not as much.

Scott Benjamin: Even just one toll gate on this road, on Georgia 400 - 50 cents. It's a standard flat rate for everybody.

Ben Bowlin: And you can drive around it.

Scott Benjamin: They're talking about - yeah, you can drive around it. You mean exit and -

Ben Bowlin: Go up the back way and go back down.

Scott Benjamin: I thought you meant through it without paying.

Ben Bowlin: You know I'm really cheap, man. I have done that once. Intellectually, I realize I'm spending more on gas, but this was when gas was cheaper.

Scott Benjamin: I understand. I have figures here from 2007. I don't have anything later than that. But the traffic that goes through that every single weekday is something like 126,000 cars. And I can only assume that that number's going up, up, up every year because our population's growing here. But the thing is, the proceeds started to drop. Even though the revenue should've been going up, it was coming down because of failures in the equipment. So remember what I mentioned earlier, t hat we have to pay for upgrades for this thing?

Ben Bowlin: Maintenance fees and -

Scott Benjamin: Most are upgraded every few years. This one, I believe has gone through 14 years without having an upgrade - up until 2007. So when they started that program to redo the computer system and the way that they take the tolls, make it very advanced, that was catching up from 14 years ago. This is something they normally don't do, and that's why it cost several million dollars. And that's why we're still paying the toll, even though it should've been gone. Well, it should be gone in 2011, but I think it's going to hang on.

Ben Bowlin: That sounds reasonable. Alternate theory - there is a vault filled with quarters somewhere in city hall.

Scott Benjamin: No doubt about that.

Ben Bowlin: And there's someone swimming through it. Remember Scrooge McDuck?

Scott Benjamin: I was going to say, like Scrooge McDuck. He's doing the backstroke in his cash.

Ben Bowlin: He's probably got to have some great upper arm strength, man.

Scott Benjamin: I would think so.

Ben Bowlin: To get through the coins. But this is one thing I want hear from some listeners on, anyone who especially lives in the northeastern area of the US. I was not expecting it when I drove through New York on my way to Massachusetts. I started to feel that I was from this lawless world of free roads and I'd just come into civilization. So what I want to hear from listeners are stories about their take on the toll road. Is the toll road worth it for your community? Is the toll road unnecessary? Is it a pain? Is it good? Is it bad?

Scott Benjamin: What about toll bridges?

Ben Bowlin: What about toll bridges?

Scott Benjamin: Even the Golden Gate has a toll. In fact, it's $5.00 or $6.00 at this point. And there's a carpool rate that you can pay as well that's cheaper. But you have to apply for some type of Fastpass type thing - which is another element to this whole thing. You can pay your toll electronically in a lot of cases if you're local. Obviously, that doesn't help you much if you're traveling from state to state and you're not an over the road trucker or something who knows what to expect on the way. But that's a much more efficient way to handle paying your toll. I haven't done that yet. I don't know why. I pass through the thing twice every day. It seems like it makes sense to me, but I just haven't done it.

Ben Bowlin: Well, they call it an Easy Pass here in Georgia.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, Easy Pass, Fast Track. I think there's Sun Pass in Florida.

Ben Bowlin: Basically, they're all names to make it sound like your life would be easier and maybe more sunshiny.

Scott Benjamin: It really is a lot easier. And I've got some quick facts on the amount of toll road in the country if you want to hear that.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, lay it on me.

Scott Benjamin: It's far more extensive than you would think. Okay, here's that work I always have trouble with - not urban but -

Ben Bowlin: Rural.

Scott Benjamin: Thank you. The amount of -

Ben Bowlin: Rural.

Scott Benjamin: - toll roads that cover the United States, about 3,005 miles.

Ben Bowlin: That's crazy.

Scott Benjamin: 3,005 miles are toll paying roads that you have to pay to use. Urban roads, about 2,422 miles. And these are according to the -

Ben Bowlin: That's the Federal highway guys.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, that's right. And so total, we've got about five and a half thousand miles of toll roads in the United States. So that's a significant amount of space. Now I know there's a lot of roads in the United States, but these routes that we're talking about - these 5.5 thousand miles - they go to very critical places.

Ben Bowlin: Sure. I think I've got a little list here.

Scott Benjamin: And that's why things like the bridges make sense. They make a bridge to make something easier. There's even lots of ferries that I know of that travel across bays or across small bodies of water that make perfect sense. It'll save you three hours of driving time. Take this ferry, it'll take you half an hour to get across but they charge you $40.00. Which is more worth it? And there's one even that goes from Michigan to Wisconsin, across Lake Michigan. It saves you that trip all the way down around the tip of Lake Michigan and through Chicago, etcetera.

Ben Bowlin: That's worth it.

Scott Benjamin: And up into Wisconsin. And there's several places around Lake Michigan where you can do this back and forth. You can drive your car right on it. I don't know what it costs. I don't remember the price for something like that, but it saves you a ton of time to just shuttle right across. Obviously, that one makes sense.

Ben Bowlin: And time is money and gas. I think when we talk about these places, we do see them springing up. People expect to see a turnpike or toll in the New York throughway, Niagara, New England, Massachusetts, and Florida.

Scott Benjamin: All across Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, I was surprised about Indiana and Pennsylvania. I was surprised about Ohio and Kansas.

Scott Benjamin: You were surprised about Ohio? Really? I'm a Midwesterner. I've traveled that sucker all the time. The Ohio Turnpike is kind of infamous.

Ben Bowlin: For what? High rates?

Scott Benjamin: No, no, no. I've heard it my whole life. And there's something about the Ohio State Troopers being exceptionally tough on giving speeding tickets and things like that. You're on the turnpike and at their mercy.

Ben Bowlin: Whenever I am driving in an unfamiliar place, man, I'm on my Ps and my Qs. I really am.

Scott Benjamin: Very good.

Ben Bowlin: Sometimes it's bad to have those out of state plates. But maybe that's a story for a different day. I guess what we're really getting to when we talk about toll roads here is more of an observation about the way that states and cities are changing the costs that they give to drivers. If you're a driver, you already have several levels of fees that you have to pay just to own a car.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, sure.

Ben Bowlin: And in addition to that, we're seeing things like this more and more. We're talking about the super speeder law and whether or not that was totally altruistic.

Scott Benjamin: Or if it's revenue generating.

Ben Bowlin: And we also got things like the increase in toll roads here. The idea of toll roads fell out of favor for a little while. But now it seems to be coming back. And interestingly enough, in London there's the congestion tax. And you have to wonder - especially when we see these optional toll lanes - if we're starting to build an American congestion tax.

Scott Benjamin: What about the gas tax? We pay gas tax here and that's for the upkeep of Federal roads. And this is a private road. Or what we're seeing now is kind of weird. There's a Federal private joint ownership of the roads that's starting to happen. And that in the past had been totally separate. Turnpikes and toll roads had been private enterprises up until that point. And that was the purpose. They'd pay for the road and the upkeep of the road, and even maintenance and people to operate the toll booths and everything. It all pays for itself - that's the goal anyways. But now we're seeing that they're getting Federal backing as well as these private investors that also have an interest in the road for whatever reason.

Ben Bowlin: Now, I guess we usually end this stuff with our opinions. So I'm just going to go ahead and say that although I really don't take well to waiting at that one toll spot on 400 north of Atlanta, I do support toll roads. I support the idea of it to a certain extent. I do wish I'd been a little bit less of a country mouse and a hayseed when I went into New England and up through New York so I was a little more aware that I should bring a bag of change.

Scott Benjamin: Sure, it's a quarter here and 50 cents there.

Ben Bowlin: But if you think about it, this is theoretically a very smart way to get the people who are using this sort of public good to actually pay for the upkeep. If there was just some optional tax that you could opt into, these roads would be destroyed.

Scott Benjamin: Sure, if there was a box near the on ramp.

Ben Bowlin: Donations, please.

Scott Benjamin: Suggested donations like at the museum or something. You feel pretty good about yourself tossing five bucks in there, or ten. I don't know how many people would do it on the road.

Ben Bowlin: Man, no. I probably wouldn't.

Scott Benjamin: Can I end with a question?

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: Okay, this is for you. What bothers you the most about toll roads - and I've got the answer that's not the one that everybody's thinking.

Ben Bowlin: What bothers me the most about toll roads -

Scott Benjamin: Let's say you're on a turnpike where you have to pay to exit - any exit.

Ben Bowlin: Okay, sure. Like New Jersey or something. What bothers me the most about toll roads is, even when I'm familiar with them, if you're there during a busy period - and this is not the most creative answer, Scott.

Scott Benjamin: That's all right.

Ben Bowlin: You know how the roads widen and sub-divide into these multiple lanes? And then when you're leaving the toll and they all quickly converge again - that part when you leave. That is my least favorite part, man. Especially in a traffic jam, are you kidding? I've had near death experiences.

Scott Benjamin: Fair enough. Mine is the high cost of food and gas on toll roads because you're a captive audience. And I've noticed this traveling in the Midwest around Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania - even New Jersey. Anything you stop to buy, it seems, is just marked up an unbelievable amount. Food and gas, of course - they know you don't want to exit to find gas and then have to pay to get back on. It's a difficult thing. So it's a captive audience. They want you to stop at their own plazas where things are marked up. And I try to hold off eating and try to get fuel before I get onto a turnpike or toll road. But that's always something that's really bothered me. That's not really gouging, I don't think. It's not to the point where it's absurd and you wouldn't pay that.

Ben Bowlin: It's a sellers' market.

Scott Benjamin: It's up just a little bit and you can say, "Well, yeah. It's the convenience factor. I'm going to pull in there and get that." You may pay double for a soda, but it's always bothered me.

Ben Bowlin: Not to sound like Boy Scouts, but be prepared.

Scott Benjamin: That's right.

Ben Bowlin: Okay, so we're just going to do a rapid fire catch up there with Facebook, which is Car Stuff. Also on Twitter - you can read our excellent blog on the website. And you can also generally find all sorts of fascinating information about anything that flies, floats, drives on our website as well and get some great articles. And if there's something there that just hasn't answered your questions, or if you do have a good toll road story for us, please send us an email at -

Scott Benjamin:

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