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The practice of collecting tolls on bridges harks back to the days of ferry crossings where people paid a fee to be ferried across stretches of water. As boats became impractical to carry large loads, ferry operators looked for new sources of revenue. Having built a bridge, they hoped to recoup their investment by charging tolls for people, animals, vehicles, and goods to cross it.
The original London Bridge across the river Thames opened as a toll bridge, but an accumulation of funds by the charitable trust that operated the bridge (Bridge House Estates) saw that the charges were dropped. Using interest on its capital assets, the trust now owns and runs all seven central London bridges at no cost to taxpayers or users.
In the United States, private ownership of toll bridges peaked in the mid-19th century, and by the turn of the 20th century most toll bridges were taken over by state highway departments. In some instances, a quasi-governmental authority was formed, and toll revenue bonds were issued to raise funds for construction and/or operation of the facility.
Removal/continuation of tolls
In some instances, tolls have been removed after retirement of the toll revenue bonds issued to raise funds for construction and/or operation of the facility. Examples include the Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge in Richmond, Virginia which carries U.S. Route 1 across the James River, and the 4.5-mile long James River Bridge 80 miles downstream which carries U.S. Highway 17 across the river of the same name near its mouth at Hampton Roads. In other cases, especially major facilities such as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis, Maryland, and the George Washington Bridge over Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey, the continued collection of tolls provides a dedicated source of funds for ongoing maintenance and improvements.
Sometimes citizens revolt against toll plazas, as was the case in Jacksonville, Florida. Tolls were in place on four bridges crossing the St. Johns River, including I-95. These tolls paid for the respective bridges as well as many other highway projects. As Jacksonville continued to grow, the tolls created bottlenecks on the roadway. In 1988, Jacksonville voters chose to eliminate all the toll booths and replace the revenue with a ½ cent sales tax increase. In 1989, the toll booths were removed, 36 years after the first toll booth went up.
It has become increasingly common for a toll bridge to only charge a fee in one direction. This helps reduce the traffic congestion in the other direction, and generally does not significantly reduce revenue, especially when those traveling the one direction are forced to come back over the same or a different toll bridge.
Toll avoidance: shunpiking
A practice known as shunpiking evolved which entails finding another route for the specific purpose of avoiding payment of tolls.
In some situations where the tolls were increased or felt to be unreasonably high, informal shunpiking by individuals escalated into a form of boycott by regular users, with the goal of applying the financial stress of lost toll revenue to the authority determining the levy.
One such example of shunpiking as a form of boycott occurred at the James River Bridge in eastern Virginia. After years of lower than anticipated revenues on the narrow privately funded structure built in 1928, the state of Virginia finally purchased the facility in 1949 and increased the tolls in 1955 without visibly improving the roadway, with the notable exception of a new toll plaza.
The increased toll rates incensed the public and business users alike. In a well-publicized example of shunpiking, Joseph W. Luter Jr., head of Smithfield Packing Company, the producer of world-famous Smithfield Hams, ordered his truck drivers to take a different route and cross a smaller and cheaper bridge. Tolls continued for 20 more years, and were finally removed from the old bridge in 1975 when construction began on a toll-free replacement structure.
Historic examples of toll bridges
- London Bridge
- The Humber Bridge: Previously the world's longest bridge, the Humber bridge links the counties of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire near the port city of Kingston upon Hull
- Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge
- Ha'penny Bridge: This cast iron pedestrian bridge was built in 1816 over the River Liffey in Dublin and takes its name from the historical toll amount (a half-penny).
- Ambassador Bridge between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, Canada; a bridge privately built in 1929.
- Collins Bridge, longest wooden bridge in the world when opened in 1913, across Biscayne Bay between Miami on the mainland and the barrier island which became Miami Beach, Florida.
- George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge crossing the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Indiana. Opened as a toll bridge in 1929; tolls removed in 1946.
- James River Bridge, longest bridge over water in the world when completed in 1928, across the James River between then-Warwick County and Isle of Wight County near Hampton Roads.
- Florida Overseas Highway between Florida and Key West, Florida. Built on the former alignment of the Key West Extensions of the Florida East Coast Railway, it included the Seven Mile Bridge.
- San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco.
- Golden Gate Bridge between San Francisco and Marin County.