What is a Turnpike?

N. Madison

A turnpike is a road or highway on which drivers may travel for a fee. On a turnpike, an authority collects a toll from drivers as they enter the road, exit it, or while they're traveling on it. Turnpikes, or toll roads, exist around the world. In the United States, they are most heavily concentrated in the eastern portion of the country. Toll amounts vary with each turnpike; in some places, tolls vary according to vehicle class as well.

In some instances, turnpikes are privately owned.
In some instances, turnpikes are privately owned.

A turnpike typically has either a barrier toll plaza or entry/exit system. On a turnpike with a barrier toll system, drivers must stop their vehicles at certain points on the highway for the purpose of paying tolls. The advantage of this type of toll system is that it doesn’t require the expense of building tollbooths at every exit point. On the other hand, barrier toll systems are more prone to traffic congestion. Furthermore, it is easier for drivers to evade tolls with barrier turnpike systems; they can simply drive around the tollbooths.

Tolls are collected from drivers who wish to access turnpikes.
Tolls are collected from drivers who wish to access turnpikes.

With entry/exit turnpikes, drivers are typically required to take a ticket as they enter the highway. The ticket lists the tolls that must be paid upon exiting the turnpike. Toll amounts are usually higher for longer trips, increasing incrementally for the length of the turnpike. In the event that a driver loses his or her ticket, he or she is usually required to pay the maximum toll for driving on the turnpike.

While there are turnpikes in many countries, their operation may vary by location. For instance, turnpikes may be privately owned and operated in some countries, while they are government-operated in others. In some cases, turnpikes are actually owned by the government and operated by a private company. There are even turnpikes that are managed under build-operate-transfer (BOT) systems. With a BOT turnpike system, a private company constructs the turnpike and receives a limited franchise; the government takes over ownership at the end of the agreed franchise term.

Though payment requirements do vary, turnpike tolls can usually be paid by cash or credit card. In some areas, prepaid cards or stickers can be used as payment. Some turnpikes employ specially designed, electronic toll-payment systems, allowing drivers to pay their tolls without ever stopping at a tollbooth. Some tollbooths are fully automated as well, operating without the need for human collectors.

Turnpikes are prone to traffic congestion.
Turnpikes are prone to traffic congestion.

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Discussion Comments


I used to drive across several states to and from college several times a year. I have to say that tolls have gone up dramatically in the last couple of years, and I wonder when it will stop; it seems less and less attractive to use them, even if they save an hour or two, when they almost double your transportation costs.


I hate driving on turnpikes, but I have to admit they can be better quality than other roads; the amenities and even the road quality can be much better. Even more, the speed limits are usually higher. Some toll roads are less worth it than others, though, so I do try to find alternate routes to try when I can.

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