Toll Bridges and Roads

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TOLL BRIDGES AND ROADS, a system that developed as a means of transportation improvement in the face of limited public funding. Local, colonial, and state governments, burdened by debt, chartered private turnpike and bridge companies with the authority to build, improve, and charge tolls. While toll bridges appeared in New England by 1704, the first toll roads of the turnpike era were in Virginia, which authorized tolls on an existing public road in 1785, and Pennsylvania, which chartered the sixty-two-mile Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike in 1792.

From 1790 to 1850, private toll roads were the nation's primary land-based venue of transportation. More than four hundred turnpikes, many paved to the French engineer Pierre-Marie Tresaguet's specifications, facilitated trade and communication with and movement to western areas. By the 1830s, toll canals, toll bridges over such major rivers as the Connecticut, and between 10,000 and 20,000 miles of private toll roads composed the heart of the national transportation network. However, lack of profitability and competition from railroads, which hauled heavy freight at relatively low costs and high speeds, led most turnpike and bridge authorities to dissolve by 1850, leaving their roads and bridges to public ownership.

A second wave of toll bridges and roads began in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1927, Congress ruled that federal highway aid could be used for toll bridges built, owned, and operated by the states. Bridge authorities in New York, California, and elsewhere thereafter sold revenue bonds amortized by tolls to finance new bridges, including the George Washington, Triborough, and San Francisco–Oakland Bay. But restrictions on using federal aid for toll road construction, coupled with heavy traffic on existing roads and cash-strapped treasuries, led states to create special authorities that designed and built new toll roads, which like the bridges were financed through revenue bonds. These limited-access, high-speed roads included New York City–area parkways (beginning in 1926), Connecticut's Merritt Parkway (1937), the Pennsylvania Turnpike (1940, first to accommodate trucks), and the Maine Turnpike (1947, the first postwar toll road).

The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, authorizing the interstate highway system, allowed toll bridges, roads, and tunnels to join the system if they met interstate standards and contributed to an integrated network. However, tolls were prohibited on all interstates beyond the 2,447 miles of toll expressways operating or under construction in 1956; additionally, federal highway aid could not be used for new toll facilities except for high-cost bridges and tunnels and extensions to existing toll roads.

These policies discouraged new toll road construction, until 1987 and 1991 legislation made federal highway aid available for noninterstate public and private toll roads, and allowed the imposition of tolls on federally funded noninterstate highways. Toll roads constructed thereafter included the private Dulles Greenway in Virginia and the public E-470 beltway near Denver. In the 1990s, Houston, San Diego, and Orange County, California, introduced high-occupancy toll, or HOT, lanes on otherwise free highways, permitting solo drivers to access carpool lanes by paying a toll; critics charged that this traffic management strategy created a road system stratified by class. In 2000, the Federal Highway Administration listed 4,927 miles of toll roads and 302 miles of toll bridges and tunnels nationwide.


American Public Works Association. History of Public Works in the United States, 1776–1976. Chicago: American Public Works Association, 1976.

Gómez-Ibáñez, José A., and John R. Meyer. Going Private: The International Experience with Transport Privatization. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993.

Klein, Daniel B. "The Voluntary Provision of Public Goods? The Turnpike Companies of Early America." Economic Inquiry 28 (October 1990): 788–812.

Jeremy L.Korr

See alsoInterstate Highway System ; Transportation and Travel .