The nation’s next generation of roads is paved in asphalt and confusion. As the toll-collecting setup transforms into unmanned lanes with electronic payment systems, cash is becoming as useless as wampum; the main currency is the transponder. Toll plazas are also disappearing, with streamlined arches kicking the clunky concrete stations to the curbside. Toll collectors are also facing extinction, joining lamplighters, pinsetters and switchboard operators on the island of obsolete occupations.
“This is the latest road hazard you have to worry about,” said Townsend. “If you don’t know how to negotiate the toll roads, you’re just adding headaches, cost in administrative fees and shock when the letter comes in the mail.”
On Thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year, AAA estimates that 43.6 million travelers will drive at least 50 miles from their homes. Most likely, a significant number of pilgrims will cruise the 5,365 miles of toll roads that doodle through 35 states. To reach Grandma’s holiday table in Connecticut, for example, a Washington-based grandkid will pony up in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and New York, but not the Constitution State, which abolished tolls in the 1980s. With the struggling economy breathing down legislators’ backs, the free joy ride could soon become a relic as well.
To avoid a humbug drive that can sour any sweet potato pie, we asked the experts for advice on navigating the 21st-century circuit of roads. They offered money-saving tips and stress-reducing guidance and even inspired a holiday gift idea: Surprise your loved one with a transponder, the St. Christopher of toll roads.
Bye-bye, toll collectors
We can thank the British for the tradition of Thanksgiving and blame them for toll roads. If only we could have combined the two and set up a payment system in turkey leftovers.
In the United States, the first routes requiring a penny in the bucket appeared in the late 1700s, in the commerce-rich states of Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. In the 1920s, tolls helped subsidize the infrastructure boom from sea to shining sea. Today, 104 toll agencies make sure that we pay for the roads beneath our wheels.
Toll-collecting as we know it — reduced-speed lanes, a last-minute scramble for change, a sometimes pleasant exchange with the collector — all changed in 1989. That year, Dallas went big and bold with the country’s first electronic tolling system, the Dallas North Tollway. In 2010, authorities completely phased out manual stations on the 32-mile stretch from downtown Dallas to the town of Frisco. Florida and Colorado are also at the forefront of the techno movement, with many other states, such as Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia, close behind.