So you think the toll road, with its EZ Pass lanes and blinking signs, is a modern invention? Alas, no, the urge to extract tribute from the citizenry goes back to ancient times. In what is now Iraq, travelers shelled out on the Susa-Babylon highway in the 7th century B.C., India had toll roads 400 years before Christ was born, and the writings of both Aristotle and Pliny the Elder also refer to toll roads in ancient Arabia. In the Netherlands circa 1400, you couldn’t get past the Castle Loevestein without paying a fare.

In England around 1830, 1,000 trusts controlled 30,000 miles of private roads, with 8,000 toll gates. Before the Gold Rush, only 20,000 people lived in the California territory, but that quickly grew to 200,000 after James Marshall struck gold in 1848. A way to separate miners from their goods (see "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" with Humphrey Bogart) had to be found, and that’s one reason 150 toll roads were opened between 1850 and 1902.

Roads made of wooden boards kept early drivers out of the mud, and the experience is immortalized in the old-time country song “Down the Old Plank Road.” Some robber barons built private roads and hit up the travelers who used them. Cornelius Vanderbilt II opened the Long Island Motor Parkway in 1910, using it both as a racetrack and toll road.

America went nuts with tolls after Dwight Eisenhower built the interstate system in the 1950s. A lot of tolls disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s after roads were paid for and people began complaining about them. The two I used to pay were taken down after a fatal accident in one of the plazas. But now, with electronic collection, tolls are coming back. After all, how many politicians are going to say no to a revenue source that pays out all day, every day? They’re the next best thing to casino gambling.

The infographic below gives you some sense of tolls today. I second that emotion about taking 95 along the East Coast — it’s one long toll road. New York to Disney World, $28 please. If that seems low, maybe it's because you don't pay for the George Washington Bridge in New York when you're going south. Dig the revenue from the New Jersey Turnpike — $992 million annually! How could Delaware be so small and have so many tolls?

Tale of the Tolls Infographic
Infographic by CJ Pony Parts

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.