Answer Man: Aren't toll roads highway robbery?

News-DemocratApril 28, 2014 

During spring break, we visited the West. As we returned, mostly via I-40, we entered the Oklahoma Turnpike, which is also I-40 and a state toll road. I was shocked that the cost to enter was $4 and cost to leave was $4 for a total of $8 to ride on this highway. I told the toll both collector that I came from a state that was in big trouble financially but at least we don't charge drivers to use our highways! How can Oklahoma charge us to use an Interstate highway? Isn't this federal domain? Isn't what Oklahoma doing referred to as "highway robbery"? -- Bill Craft, of Edwardsville

It's a good thing you can't be ticketed for fibbing to a tollbooth collector, because your drive across the Sooner State would have cost you a lot more than $8.

You apparently have not driven around the Chicago area recently or tried to make your way to Milwaukee as I often do for its summer Irish music festival. There, you'll find the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority in command of 300 miles of toll roads, including the Tri-State Tollway (I-80, I-94 and I-294), the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway (I-90) -- even the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway (I-88).

This is no recent phenomenon, either. Illinois' original Toll Highway Authority was established in 1941, although the first three tollways did not open until 1958. In fact, 28 states from Maine to California now charge tolls on at least part of their highway systems.

In all, of the nearly 48,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System, you have to pay to drive on about 3,000. And with more fuel-efficient engines and hybrid cars producing less gas-tax revenue for cash-strapped states, drivers probably will see the future take an ever-increasing toll on their wallets, so to speak.

I'm sure that's not the way Dwight Eisenhower wanted it when he signed the bill that authorized the Interstate Highway System in 1956. In the midst of the Cold War, he envisioned a national system of wide-open, free expressways that would aid in the evacuation of cities and military maneuvers in the event of a nuclear attack.

But his plan soon ran into a snag. As far back as the 1920s, limited-access highways began to appear because drivers wanted better roads and states needed a way to pay for them. They thought it would be fair to make those who used the roads pay tolls. In 1940, the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut is thought to have become the first fully controlled-access expressway.

After World War II, an increasing number of states formed toll authorities, issuing bonds financed through tolls. For example, the New York State Thruway was designed so well, it reportedly became a prototype for the interstate system. Indiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania -- to name a few -- followed suit.

So by the time the interstate system came along, its planners had a problem: All of these sleek, modern toll roads had either been finished or were well under construction without federal money. They could be easily connected to the interstate system, but they wouldn't be free as Eisenhower wanted. What to do?

Congress extensively debated two ideas. One was to pay off the state bonds, but this would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars without producing an inch of new pavement. The other was to build new interstates that would parallel the existing tollways. This, however, not only would have been costly but also would have jeopardized the states' ability to pay off the bonds they used to build the state roads.

They decided to go with the system you see today -- a sort of national patchwork quilt of free interstate roads with pieces of original turnpikes making up about 6 percent of the system. In return, these turnpikes generally do not receive federal funds for maintenance and improvements nor do they have to meet strict interstate standards.

Besides, as the Federal Highway Administration points out on its website, the states own and operate the interstates. For example, it's a common misconception that Washington once mandated a national 55-mph speed limit. Not true. States were free to set higher limits, but they would not receive federal highway funds if they did.

Now, as states struggle to raise cash for highways, expect more tollbooths in your future. Federal laws have changed, allowing some states to turn free roads into tollways. There's been talk of converting I-70 through Missouri into a turnpike. Connecticut and Kentucky, which once eliminated its toll roads, are talking about bringing them back. Michigan and Tennessee are thinking about instituting them for the first time.

Better keep your purses and billfolds handy as you drive.

For a comprehensive look at national toll facilities, go to www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/tollpage; for Illinois, go to www.illinoistollway.com. You also can check out all the toll road authority links through Wikipedia. And, if you're interested, Oklahoma turnpikes brought in $258,481,000 last year, according to www.pikepass.com.

Today's trivia

Why are toll roads often called turnpikes?

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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