Living in the NY/NJ/PA area fosters a familiarity with tolls, and a natural aversion to them. As a youth, I frequently traveled the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York, from Staten Island into Brooklyn and back. A story, possibly urban legend, had it that the director of a TV commercial filming at the Verrazano changed the toll price listing in the background of his shot, because the real amount was thought too high to be believable to a wide audience. In recent years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been good for a news headline every couple of years as it extends or reclaims that bridge’s title as Most Expensive Toll Bridge in America, with a toll that currently runs $19 without discounts.
Although you may be shocked to learn that New Jersey doesn’t have any of the 10 most expensive toll roads in the country (measured in cost per mile), that’s more than made up for by the preponderance of toll bridges and tunnels positioned at many (most?) of our state crossings. Newcomers to America, unaware of the history of colonies and statehood and such, might be forgiven for thinking that individual state identity is just a complicated ploy to extract money.
As of July, there’s a new toll bridge in town—the Scudder Falls Bridge. Note that it is “Scudder Falls,” not “Scudders Falls” or “Scudder’s Falls”, though most of the people I know use one of the latter two forms. I usually do the same—chalk it up to “When in Rome… (or Hamilton)… do as the Romans (or Hamiltonians) do.” And yes, I say “Saint RAY-feels” instead of Saint Raphael’s, for the same reason.
The new Scudder Falls Bridge replaced the old, free one, and will cost drivers with E-Z Pass $1.25 to travel into Pennsylvania. Those without E-Z Pass will be mailed a bill for $2.60.
Back in the early 1990s, when traveling the Garden State Parkway at least offered the relief of flinging coins at the collection basket, some people—call them innocent and naive, call them overly optimistic, call them unfamiliar with the workings of government—pictured a future with no tolls. Zero. Toll taking took its toll, after all, in traffic tie-ups and employee salaries, and the argument could be made that tolls had outlived their usefulness.
But the electronic revolution saved the day. In the late 1990s, electronic toll collection was introduced to New Jersey roads, starting with the Atlantic City Expressway, followed by the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike. E-Z Pass was intended to be a faster, more efficient, almost pleasant means to pay your way.
For a long time, New Jersey relied on tolls, perhaps because the gasoline tax, used in most states to fund transportation projects and maintenance, was kept low. Road tolls increased steadily, with big jumps in 2008 and 2012. Then in 2016, and again in 2018, New Jersey’s gasoline tax was raised significantly. As a result, we have the 9th highest gas tax in the country. Plus a whole bunch of tolls.
There are plenty of reasons this sort of thing keeps happening. Gas taxes and tolls have few limits as to how they’re spent. Authorities are more or less free to undertake projects they claim are “necessary” and if the money’s not there, taxes or tolls are easily increased to cover the costs. Money intended for roadway maintenance is often “borrowed” for other items in the state budget. And we, as taxpayers, are largely kept out of the decision-making process.
The irony of E-Z Pass is that while making the process better for drivers in many ways, it’s also given authorities the ability to invisibly tighten the noose as needed. E-Z Pass holders already pay a $1 per month service fee for the privilege of paying tolls, and who’s to say whether E-Z Pass discounts result in drivers paying any less money than they would have, had history taken a different, non-electronic course.
But people have become accustomed to tolls, leading to only occasional outrage when a toll hike crosses some previously unknown level of acceptability. This usually leads to a slight scaling back of the original proposal, and a “win” for everyone, though the toll still increases. Tolls are seen by many as a fair way to support roads, tunnels, and bridges, because they’re paid by the people who use them—as opposed to the gasoline tax, which, while more efficient because of minimal administrative costs, is paid by everyone who drives, and is thus less politically palatable.
With electronic tolls making tolling so easy, industry types—yes, there is a tolling “industry”—predict more tolls in the future. Pat Jones, executive director of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association, was quoted in 2018 as saying “I think 2018 is going to be a very good year for tolling,” and it’s safe to say his definition of “very good year” differs from yours and mine. It’s also safe to say that 2019 is probably not, in his estimation, not a good year for tolling.
It seems there’s no way to avoid tolls; even a GPS app like Google Maps, which specifically allows you to choose to “avoid tolls” on your driving route, should probably rename that option to a more realistic “minimize tolls”, since it, like the rest of us, has no answer for how to drive into New York City without coughing up cash.
The expression “all told” is roughly synonymous to “in the end” or “the final result is”, and is occasionally misspelled as “all tolled.” In this case, though, the two might as well be interchangeable. All told, we’re all tolled.