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Insider Insights: Articles

Toll Roads: A 3,000-year-old debate

Monday, March 3, 2014, 9:36 AM

The concept of charging directly for the use and convenience of a roadway is not a new subject, despite what you may read in your local news.

Toll roads have been a topic of heated debate for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, more than 2000 years ago, road tolls were considered as a means of reducing daytime congestion in city streets. Even then, with some of the greatest thinkers of the time applying their knowledge, there was little to no consensus. Toll roads existed more than 3,000 years ago formal toll roads existed in the form of trade routes, spice routes etc. These were maintained for the safe and efficient movement of goods – to allow commerce.

During the 14th and 15th century, private roads throughout Europe and the UK were a common method of travel. Paying directly to the people who created the road, maintained the bridges and kept it safe from bandits and highway robbers. Toll bridges have also been around for thousands of years – now you don’t need to know the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow, instead you just pay a couple dollars to cross. In the end, paying a two dollar bridge toll is far more convenient than driving around the valley or around the lake, river, etc.

Example of a toll booth from 17th century England – Wikimedia commons

Example of a toll booth from 17th century England – Wikimedia commons

In more recent times many of the first major roads in cities were developed by private companies. For example, the city of Toronto initially had a government run program to build roads, this system failed to produce adequate roads and costs overruns were very high. In the mid-1800s this was switched to a system where private companies bid to build roads and were allowed to collect tolls on them to generate revenue. That system ran for almost 50 years before being shut down.

In some manner all of our roads are toll roads since almost every city, state, region and country have some sort of tax on fuel. Those taxes should be going directly to pay the costs of infrastructure. So, every time you buy fuel you are in effect paying a road toll.

In the last few hundred years we have recognized that cities make the most efficient use of resources. Density, while it has drawbacks, is the most efficient way to live and work on many levels. To have that density, we need to have access to convenient travel otherwise commerce cannot be conducted at all.

Looking at our highways from a broad overview, we are almost back to the level of private roads. The roads are built by private companies, maintained by private companies, many roads are managed and policed by private companies. What seems to raise the cost and inhibit growth is the middle man – in this case the various government agencies.

Two questions to consider:

1. If the purpose of a road is to allow convenient travel, are road tolls the most accurate method of assessing the value of a route?
2. Would we be better served as a society to let private companies manage roads from construction to maintenance?

Even after thousands of years of discussion and debate, there is no clear consensus yet.

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