Tolls can sometimes be a controversial subject to those who are outraged by the requirement to pay for using roads and bridges. As best as I can tell, the feeling is one of being literally nickeled and dimed, every time one has to run across a certain route. However tolls are potentially one of the fairest and most effective forms of taxation in existence because they literally offer one a choice of paying or not paying the tax, and a direct benefit if they do pay it.
Tolls are in use throughout the world, and while people may balk at the $4 bridges and $7 highways, consider that in parts of Western Europe, comparable tolls can be three times that amount. The basis for a toll is to issue a bond for the building of a roadway, bridge or tunnel to collect the money up front. The bonds are sold to citizens, who then are paid a regular coupon amount for a certain number of years, or they are paid at the end of the term of the bond, a larger amount than their purchase price. The tolls collected essentially fill up the fund which will be required to pay back the lenders. The other way to pay for roads (and this is how most roads are built) is to use current tax money, which often is not enough at one time to fund expensive infrastructure projects. Additionally, tax money comes from all residents in a jurisdiction, rather than from those who will actually use the road, bridge or tunnel. In some states such as Massachusetts, toll roads are actually privatized, meaning that companies are actually granted the rights to build a road and collect toll money for it for a certain number of years, after which they will grant the road back to the state. This removes the government involvement in the whole process, cuts red tape, and in theory creates an incentive for the builder to be faster, more efficient and less corrupt than the government might be. The state gets a say in what the toll amount will be but essentially if the toll is too high, people will just avoid the road. Because of the unique funding arrangement of tolls, the roads are often maintained better than tax funded roads because instead of having to apply for funds every time a repair is needed, projects are pre-funded by the bond.
Other than objection to paying them, tolls have traditionally created other problems such as:
- Requiring extra real estate for toll plazas
- Causing traffic jams and pollution at plaza backups
- Causing traffic accidents at the plazas
Automated tolls have greatly reduced these problems as well as lowered costs for collection. Some states such as New Jersey and New Hampshire have even installed high speed toll readers which allow drivers to maintain their highway speeds as they pass through the plazas. The evolving technology along with good toll plaza design continues to improve the shortcomings of tolls, making their justification harder and harder to dispute.