In Defense of Road Tolls

I don't do much driving, but this year, I've made a couple of long-distance trips. The first was a round-trip between Washington and Akron - about 700 total miles. The second was the round-trip between Washington and Virginia Beach I did back in August - about 420 total miles. The first trip cost an extra $30 in tolls. The second trip was "free" as we often think of it. The first trip was generally low-stress and easy to drive. The second trip was high-stress and challenging to drive. Both trips took roughly the same amount of time (6 hours each way).

(from Joming Lau on Flickr)

When I tell people that I paid $30 to drive on the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes, they usually respond with "oh, what a ripoff" or "that's really expensive" or something of the nature.

I think the price is completely worth it.

See, people want to drive on a road as nice as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with as little traffic, they just want it to be "free". The problem is that it's counter-factual thinking. It's easy to imagine cruising down the Turnpike at 65 mph with minimal traffic and say "I want to pay less for this," but you can't, because if there were no toll, then a key variable would change, and there's nothing to say it wouldn't be just as packed and congested as any other "free" interstate.

Honestly, I cringe at the thought of ever driving to Virginia Beach again, in slow-moving, stop-and-go traffic. I dread the delays, the red break lights, and the sea of vehicles ahead as far as the eye can see. I hate the complete unpredictability of the drive and not having a good idea of how long it's going to take.

So yes, as a driver, I think tolls can be great. As a consumer, sometimes it makes sense not to always be totally cheap. Often it's better to pay more to get something that's a better value. When it comes to my highway driving experience, I think that's exactly the case.


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    Well, I'm going to have to disagree here. I understand that free highways get congested and toll roads less so (although feel free to drive the New Jersey Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway during any rush hour to be proven wrong!). However, part of the reason for that is that traffic, including heavy truck traffic, that would normally travel via a toll road often diverts to (usually smaller) back roads. Heck, I do that myself when I can. So toll roads really don't equalize the cost of roads across all users.

    A better solution, although I hate paying it, is a real increase in the gas tax, as Connecticut has done. Gas in Connecticut is wicked expensive, as they like to say there, but it reflects more accurately the cost of maintaining the road system.

    As you point out, roads really aren't "free," and we will have to figure out an equitable way for users and the public to pay for them. Ultimately that probably means a difficult conversation about charging based on vehicle miles traveled, but until the technology and privacy issues can be addressed, a "serious" -- as in, it can realistically address the costs it is intended to address -- gas tax seems to be the logical solution. And, for those who don't ever want to raise any taxes, ever, we could call it a user fee, which is what it is.