Paying passage along one’s journey was a common practice even for the gods. Humans have written the ritual down in ancient treatises and mythologies. Whether transporting souls, livestock, or a family of four, the fundamental truth of the road is that travelers must pay their way.
Toll roads are intended to move large volumes of people and goods quickly and efficiently. This is why you will never see a stop sign or a red light on a toll road. For this reason, they are expensive to build and maintain, so travelers are charged before they can use the road. This money is used for repairs and improvements, which is why it is rare to encounter a pothole swallowing a car, unlike municipal thoroughfares.
Toll roads have a long history, but the last 30 years alone have brought some of the fastest and most dramatic transformations. In the late 1980s, tolls were run by human operators; drivers rushed for exact change as they made their way to the booths, among other drivers fumbling for dollars and cents in a center console. Toll booths today are captured by transponders or license plate imaging, and the concept of reaching out a window to exchange money with a toll booth operator sounds nostalgic, almost quaint.
RateGenius has compiled this history of the American toll – starting with its roots overseas and in ancient history – drawing on research from the Federal Highway Administration; the International Association of Bridges, Tunnels and Toll Highways; and other organizations. Read on to learn more about how the culture and politics of the 20th and 21st centuries have shaped the evolution of toll roads in the United States.