Toll Roads: Unloved, But Necessary

5 mins read

By: Brett Harmon

The aging U.S. public highway system is a problematic part of the nation’s infrastructure, as millions of citizens depend on highways even as they inch further into disrepair. Toll roads are the easiest solution to address mounting costs of repairs and rebuilding. Still, some believe toll roads are deceptive and unfair, taking our money each time we drive through a checkpoint. Others argue that the small fees are akin to a regressive tax, disproportionately impacting the poor. But the money coming from toll roads plays an important role in helping to rebuild the country’s infrastructure

Many of our lives would be drastically different without toll roads. Getting to work on time in the morning and making everyday stops involves the use of toll-funded highways for many. These arteries provide a means to quicker transportation with less traffic congestion and shorter alternative routes to a destination. Along with serving commuters, toll roads provide money for improving the nation’s infrastructure, especially old roads and bridges. Nick Stockton, a science reporter for Tylt and Wired, explained that the government is in dire need of money for reconstructing the public highways in certain parts of the country.

“Driving is free, and tax money simply isn’t cutting it to maintain our nation’s roads,” Stockton said. “What [drivers] pay in the form of gas and other taxes, doesn’t come close to covering the costs of maintaining the roads on which they travel.”

Toll roads also play a part in decreasing nationwide pollution levels, as the use of these roads tends to reduce drive times and require less fuel. When Americans decide to bypass the fee and use public highways, traffic worsens and travel times increase. Driving more, on any road, spikes greenhouse gases and other emissions.  

Accidents, often the result of stress or fatigue exacerbated by traffic congestion, are another problem. With less congestion, toll roads create safer driving environments, resulting in fewer fatalities compared to public highways. A significant decrease in fatalities and traffic congestion has recently led to an increase in toll roads built nationwide. According to the U.C. Berkeley Institute for Transportation, using toll roads help save businesses time and improve productivity, with their workers cutting down on travel time to and from work. In recent years, the number of Americans using toll roads has expanded, making it the most reliable alternative for commuting.

Still, the majority of commuters believe toll roads are overpriced and arbitrary in the way they are managed and priced. Motorists need an alternative to the public highways, and toll roads provide the easiest solution. But easiest may not be best, argues James Baxter, founder of the National Motorists Association. Baxter talked about the illusion of free market principles in government creating toll road policies. “The state identifies the corridor it wants, establishes what it considers to be a politically and judicially acceptable price, and condemns the land of those sellers who disagree,” Baxter said. “This is market principles at the end of a gun barrel.”

Indeed, toll roads may not be a sterling example of a free-market economy at work, but they are the best solution to our public highway system as it struggles to accommodate a steadily increasing population and an economy dependent on efficient transportation. The government has a good justification for the high toll prices, and lower-income populations are not dramatically disadvantaged by the regressive nature of tolls. While income tax paid to the government helps to improve our nation’s infrastructure and public highways, Toll roads have had a favorable impact on the U.S. transportation system, the nation’s infrastructure and our economic vitality.

Brett is sophomore Computer Science major.

Graphic by David Giacomini.

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