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What are tolls?

A toll is a payment made for the right to cross a gate or bridge or drive on a road. This form of right-of-way dates back to the Middle Ages. A toll can be managed publicly or privately (through concessions). 

It is generally associated with the fees charged for different modes of transportation (land, river, or sea) to have the right to travel on the respective roadway infrastructure: a car pays a toll to go onto a highway; a ship does so to cross a channel.

Collecting tolls makes it possible to carry out large infrastructure projects that are financed directly by their users, thus keeping a country’s other taxpayers from having to subsidize that road infrastructure. The fee makes construction and expansion of the road (lanes, bridges, viaducts, and more ) possible, and it supports maintenance so that the existing road infrastructure (lighting, customer service, ambulance or crane services, asphalt, and so on) can stay in operation in optimal conditions.

What benefits do tolls offer?

By traveling on toll routes, modes of transportation save travel time and reduce operating costs compared to other alternate routes. In addition, toll roads offer a minimum standard of quality in infrastructure, as well as a set of services that facilitate traffic flow and improve safety (for example, snow plows and spreaders in winter).

What types of tolls are there today?

Toll booths may be located on any road, but they’re most often found just before or just after highways, bridges, and tunnels, or in the case of ships, at the canals. Tolls are also charged to access ferries and shuttles.

Tolls can be classified into types by payment method:

  • Open toll: every certain distance, the user must pay a fixed amount at a toll booth.
  • Closed toll: the vehicle’s entrance is recorded, and it is only charged upon leaving; the amount depends on the distance traveled. 
  • Annual toll: Users pay an annual amount for a pass that lets them travel freely on toll roads. 

These are direct tolls. There’s also the so-called shadow toll. In this model, the roads are funded through taxes, not by charging users.

Then there’s the congestion toll or congestion pricing, created to reduce emissions and clean up cities. This taxes the use of vehicles in urban centers and during peak hours. It’s not a system for funding traffic routes, so it’s not really a toll; rather, it’s a mechanism to control and minimize the harmful effects of excessive traffic in highly populated cities.

What countries have implemented tolls?

Currently, 13 of the European Union’s 27 countries charge motorway users tolls. However, toll network models vary greatly between countries. In France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal, there are traditional toll systems along with toll-free alternative routes. Germany, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden have a free road system, but driving through some tunnels and bridges carries a fee. Albania, Estonia, Iceland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and Ukraine also have a free road system. Poland has tolls on all of its high-capacity highways.

In the United States, there are only tolls in 36 of the 50 country’s states(the most expensive are in New York and Florida). Fast payment systems and smart tolls have been implemented with the aim of reducing traffic on highways: the toll amount is automatically added to each vehicle’s account. This means they don’t have to stop to pay with cash at the booths or wait for change. In addition, if the user doesn’t pay on time, they may face fines or higher car insurance rates. 

What models of tolls are there around the world?

Vialivre: a multi-lane, free-flow electronic toll model that Ferrovial developed in record time for Portugal in 2010. By implementing Vialivre, it was possible to move to an explicit toll system without the need to build infrastructure.

The Panama Canal: Since it opened in 1914, ships have paid tolls to travel through this system of locks connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.

FasTrak: The city of Los Angeles is famous for its slow traffic. Those who want to avoid daily traffic jams can pay for a smart e-pass that lets them access fast lanes. 

Fun facts about tolls

  • In Dublin, there’s a bridge known as Ha’penny (half penny). This was the toll originally charged for crossing it at its construction in 1816. The bridge’s first official name is Liffey Bridge, but it has always been known as Ha’Penny Bridge.
  • The first tolls as we now know them today were created in England in the mid-nineteenth century: Parliament granted the roads to private companies as concessions, and they installed booths to collect tolls.
  • It costs €25.34 to cross the Great St Bernard Tunnel in Switzerland. It is the most expensive tunnel in Europe.
  • The most expensive bridge in Europe costs around €7. It’s the Great Belt bridge in Denmark, which connects the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen.
  • Portugal is among the countries that collect the most money through tolls. According to official figures, the country collected €1.114 billion in 2018.

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