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FHWA Home / Policy & Governmental Affairs / Highway Policy Information / Toll Facilities in the United States

Toll Facilities in the United States

Toll Roads in the United States: History and Current Policy


The early settlers who came to America found a land of dense wilderness, interlaced with creeks, rivers, and streams. Within this wilderness was an extensive network of trails, many of which were created by the migration of the buffalo and used by the Native American Indians as hunting and trading routes. These primitive trails were at first crooked and narrow. Over time, the trails were widened, straightened and improved by settlers for use by horse and wagons. These became some of the first roads in the new land.

After the American Revolution, the National Government began to realize the importance of westward expansion and trade in the development of the new Nation. As a result, an era of road building began. This period was marked by the development of turnpike companies, our earliest toll roads in the United States. In 1792, the first turnpike was chartered and became known as the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania. It was the first road in America covered with a layer of crushed stone. The boom in turnpike construction began, resulting in the incorporation of more than 50 turnpike companies in Connecticut, 67 in New York, and others in Massachusetts and around the country. A notable turnpike, the Boston-Newburyport Turnpike, was 32 miles long and cost approximately $12,500 per mile to construct.

As the Nation grew, so did the need for improved roads. In 1806, the Federal Government passed legislation to fund the National Road, known as the Cumberland Road. This road would stretch from Maryland through Pennsylvania, over the Cumberland Mountains, to the Ohio River. For a period of time, these roads served the new Nation well. However, with the use of heavier wagons and the large movements of entire families across the country, a strain on the infrastructure was evident. The roads in this country were still dirt and gravel- paved, rutted and impassable in bad weather.

Toward the 1880s, America began to see the increased use of bicycles as a form of transportation, which led to the "Good Roads Movement," mainly through bicyclist clubs across the country. In addition, with the advent of the automobile, new and better roads were required. The Federal Government responded by creating the Office of Road Inquiry in 1893. This agency was responsible for collecting data, answering questions, and assisting in road improvements. Later, this infant agency grew to help finance road construction (Post Office Appropriation Act of 1912), the beginning of Federal-aid roads. Soon, connecting highways emerged from contributions of State and local governments as well as Federal financing. People were traveling further and more frequently.

World War I saw greater dependence on these vital roadways, especially manufacturing centers. Following the war, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided financial assistance to the States to build roads and bridges. The need for a nationwide interconnecting system of highways became clearer. By the end of the 1920s, more than half of all American families owned automobiles. Engineers were kept busy building highways, bridges, and tunnels, especially in the larger cities such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Tolls were used on many roads, bridges, and tunnels to help pay for this building boom. The Holland Tunnel in New York was completed in the mid‑1920s and opened up routes into the heart of New York City. It was referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, built in the 1930s, provided access into San Francisco from across the bay.

Page last modified on April 4, 2018
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