Taking a Toll

From Merriam-Webster: highway robbery, n., 1: robbery committed on or near a public highway usually against travelers.

NJ-turnpike-Toll-BoothsIf you live on the East Coast of America, the concept of a free ride is an empty one. Toll roads exist in about half the states, with the original pay-to-pass having been built between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa., in the 1790s.  Currently, in every state that touches the coast, or connects to a state that does, drivers must ante up. New Jersey, at some point, decided that, given its strategic location, it could haul in bucket-loads of cash by providing high-speed roads that would take people to where they really wanted to be.

If you want to travel the length of New Jersey – since that’s mostly what it offers – on the New Jersey Turnpike, it will cost a passenger car $13.85. The Garden State Parkway is another means of traversing, but for $15.75; the GSP is a little deceptive, since it stops you periodically for tolls – maybe giving you a chance to get off before you run out of money. And this sporadic payment plan makes it difficult to know what it is actually costing.

NJ turnpike system

I know from experience, the tolls can create a secondary (to the traffic) panic when you are exiting the booth and your one-way ride has already cost $27, and you have nothing to show for it. If you cross borders into and out of New Jersey, it can be as costly as a hold-up during a Wild West stagecoach ride.

You can enter New Jersey for free, but to leave you must pay the piper. Going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, the fee varies slightly, perhaps based on the specific bridge’s construction expense; sometimes it costs $5 or $4, and sometimes only $1 – so pick your bridges carefully. Pennsylvania is a bargain compared to New York, where, merely to cross a bridge or enter a tunnel and exit New Jersey, get ready to pony up $13 for the privilege. In a quick calculation, if you live in Cranbury, N.J., and you drive into Manhattan every workday (you would have to be insane to do this), your weekly bill for tolls would be around $150. Ka-ching!

The well-known Pennsylvania Turnpike was constructed in the 1930s, and is probably the most expensive ride across a state, if you take it from New Jersey to Ohio – a whopping $35. On the New York State Thruway, from New York City to the other side of the state, you can pay around $25.

familiar sign

In 1993, E-ZPass, an electronic toll-collection system, debuted on the New York  State Thruway, just two years after Colorado’s E-470 came up with the first of its type. E-ZPass is now used in 14 states. With this method, you can be pinched without even opening your pockets; it just deducts your ride from your electronic E-ZPass account. This can provide a kind of out-of-sight-out-of-mind stress avoidance – that is, until you look at your monthly statement. Just add up 20 crossings via a tunnel and the stress is there in spades – thankfully, you are not in your vehicle when you see the bill, since road rage might ensue.

Of course, there are alternatives, but some of them make you happy to pay. My theory is that U.S. Route 1 in New Jersey is purposely left untended, pothole-riddled and ugly just for that very reason.

However, there are many state and county roads throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, and surprisingly, they are interesting rural byways – especially the old parkways that were once toll roads but are no more. They are the only means of seeing what is truly wonderful about these states – in terms of driving. There is no placeness on interstates, since they are all about moving you through, quickly and without distraction. The toll roads will not give you views of the good stuff, the way the back roads do.

Come on and take a free ride.

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