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Phantom Tollbooths

Ask not for whom the tollbooth tolls, for it tolls for thee. At least that's how it works in theory. The word "freeway" is an oxymoron because highways aren't free. It costs money to build and maintain roads. That's why we pay unusually chunky taxes every time we fill 'er up at the gas pump.

So what's the deal with the tollbooth? It's unsightly. It's counterproductive. It's dangerous. You won't find too many drivers cheering the tollbooth. The stop. The wait. The fumbling for change. The exchange. The clearance. While folks may factor everything from insurance to registration fees in the car-buying decision process, few factor in the financial impact of being nickel-and-dimed on tolls -- but they should.

While states have been rolling out technological enhancements to improve the collection process, the question remains: Why?

According to the Illinois-based activist group at notolls.org, that state's tollway system was rolled out in the 1950s as a way to pay for financing bonds. Yet while the debt was paid off three decades later, the tolls remain.

Like a kid with a borrowed toy who eventually grows to assume ownership, tollbooths earmarked for one collection are often simply redirected to raise money for a new project or help balance a transportation budgeting shortfall elsewhere.

Safety first
Citizens Against Tolls is a group of activists who oppose tollbooths on New Jersey's Garden State Parkway. "Tolls are the least efficient, most expensive, most polluting, and most aggravating way to pay for a road," the group argues on its appropriately titled site endtolls.com.

The organization argues that it costs more than $70 million each year simply to collect the tolls on the Parkway. Isn't there a more efficient way to fund the roadways? However, Citizens Against Tolls saves its most damaging arguments when it comes to safety.

A study of last year's Parkway accidents found that a wreck was at least three times more likely to happen approaching a tollbooth than anywhere else on the highway. It makes sense. Cars are swerving over to appropriate lanes. Motorists are temporarily distracted as they look for the right coins. It's a dizzying spectacle during times of peak congestion.

Paving over tradition
While it can be argued that tolls are an ideal form of taxation in that it is a cost borne by those who benefit from the tolled roadways the most, there are still lines that should not be crossed. According to the Charleston Daily Mail, Kentucky congressman Hal Rogers may have garnered new fans when he managed to eradicate tolls on the scenic Daniel Boone Parkway by winning over congressional funds. But he lost some of those cheerleaders when the highway was earmarked to be renamed after Rogers himself.

The National Motorists Association, while probably best known for successfully promoting higher ceilings on national speed limits, also opposes the expansion of toll roads as well as the continued use of tollbooths that have outlived their financing obligations.

All over the country, tollbooths are finding few friends these days. From environmentalist groups who argue that the presence of booths violates the Clean Air Act to frustrated drivers venting at innocent collectors, support for financing alternatives that are less cumbersome is growing.

Pass deflected
One of the more revolutionary roadway technologies developed in recent years is the toll pass. Commuters can prepay for transponders that allow motorists to drive past tollbooth lanes equipped to scan the vehicle without stopping. These toll passes go by different names. In California, it's called FasTrak. In Florida it's SunPass.

Between the convenience and the discounted tolls, it's easy to see why they have become popular with commuters. Illinois had issued 950,000 transponders by June. A month earlier, I-Pass drivers already accounted for 43% of all tollway transactions.

They are not cheap. Before FasTrak's electronic tolls are used to improve transit service in Southern California, $750,000 is applied to operating costs and another $60,000 for enforcement. However, Florida claims that SunPass lanes can process up to 1,800 vehicles an hour -- a 300% improvement over their manually operated forefathers.

Yet even progress has its detractors. The infrastructure buildout of these next-generation tollbooths is not cheap, and advocates are finding it hard to not argue the labor savings from these unmanned booths while the economy is still sensitive to job cuts.

Citizens Against Tolls argues that the hundreds of millions supposedly earmarked for New Jersey's E-ZPass system a few years back could have gone a long way to bankroll many other transit improvement projects.

So, you can't please everybody. I'd argue that's just my two cents' worth, but, I'm sorry, I'm going to need those. I see a tollbooth up ahead.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz respects the tollbooth operator. He also refuses to buy into the transponder -- for now. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.


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Rick Munarriz
TMFBreakerRick

Rick has been writing for Motley Fool since 1995 where he's a Consumer and Tech Stocks Specialist. Yes, that's a long time. He's been an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and a portfolio lead analyst for Motley Fool Supernova since each newsletter service's inception. He earned his BBA and MBA from the University of Miami, and he now lives a block from his alma mater.

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