Whether traveling across state lines or taking an extended road trip within your own state, your route may include driving on a toll road. You can pay at the toll booth, or be billed for the toll, based on having a transponder in your car.
So, where does that money go, and do drivers benefit from how it is spent?
COMMON USES OF MONEY COLLECTED FROM TOLLS
Each state has different laws regulating the use of money collected from tolls. Generally speaking, a portion of the funds are used to maintain the roadways and bridges you drive on, plus other related services. In New Jersey a Turnpike Authority spokesperson shared that these services can include "plowing snow, maintaining pavement [and] bridge decks, filling potholes, mowing grass, and paying for state police."
A sizeable portion of the money collected from tolls goes towards debt services or the principal and interest payments on debt taken out to build new roadways.
OTHER EXPENSES AND AGREEMENTS
While tolls are often described as a "user fee," 100% of the dollars collected do not go to road maintenance, according to a 2020 study by The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). ATRI's report examined 21 major toll systems and found nearly 50% of tolls were "diverted to uses other than the operation of toll roads and bridges." Such other uses could include "mass transit and non-toll, facility-related transportation."
Another use identified by the report was toll collection. ATRI research suggests "32.4% of total revenue was used to cover facility costs," including toll collection activities. In some cases, monetary agreements do exist between state governments and toll collection agencies. For example, the New Jersey Turnpike budget "includes $605 million for NJ Transit as well as $24.5 million for the Transportation Trust Fund and Feeder Road Agreements combined."
THE PRICIEST TOLL ROAD
Pennsylvania has been ranked as America's—and the world's— most expensive toll road, according to a survey conducted by Budget Direct, an Australian insurance agency.
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) uses toll funds for the standard expenditures: debt service, capital improvements, and operating costs. However, reporting by TheCenterSquare.com indicates that a recent 5% toll increase went "toward the turnpike's required payments to the state to fund public transit." The Pennsylvania Turnpike has been sending vast sums of money to the state. Since 2007, the Turnpike made nearly $8 billion in payments to PennDOT.
Mark Compton, CEO of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said his agency was "breathing a huge sigh of relief" as payments to the state decreased from $450 million annually to $50 million. This will allow the PTC "to offer some relief to customers from those heftier toll increases and refocus on essential improvements."
TIPS FOR DRIVERS
As tolls rise to provide funding for various services, drivers should take advantage of available discounts. To do so, purchase a toll transponder unit, like E-ZPass, available for purchase at some government agencies and many AAA stores. You can load your online account with funds and tolls are charged to your account, at a discount from the rates paid at traditional toll booths.
For example, drivers with an E-ZPass can save nearly 60% on Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls and drivers in Ohio can save 33%, on average. Note that E-ZPass devices can also be used on toll bridges and roads in 19 states.