turnpike, road paid for partly or wholly by fees collected from travelers at tollgates. It derives its name from the hinged bar that prevented passage through such a gate until the toll was paid. See also road.
Development of Turnpike Roads
In England tollgates were first authorized by law in 1346. Although American colonists from Scotland and Ireland, as well as from England, knew the turnpike system, it was not introduced in the United States until after the Revolution. It was then that the business interests of growing cities first required through roads, most of which could not be built and maintained by local funds in unsettled or sparsely settled regions. The tollgate, like the later gasoline tax, was a device to make the traffic pay for the road.
Early Turnpikes in America
The first American turnpike road was a state enterprise, authorized by a Virginia act of 1785. The first American turnpike to be constructed and operated by a private corporation was the Lancaster Turnpike built (1792) in Pennsylvania. Thereafter turnpikes were regularly private enterprises, and turnpike corporations held the leadership in the development of the American corporation system. The construction of turnpikes proceeded rapidly, and by 1825 a map of the Eastern states showing the turnpikes would have looked much like a present-day map showing the railroads. Famous turnpikes included the post road from New York to Boston (now part of U.S. 1), the two roads from New York to Albany (on the two sides of the Hudson River), and the roads from Albany to Buffalo, main lines of communication with the developing West.
Construction and Traffic in the Early Nineteenth Century
Construction of one of the early roads usually began with felling trees and uprooting stumps. Swamps were crossed by corduroy, i.e., logs laid side by side. The surface of the turnpike was sometimes of earth, but often of broken stone or of planks. American turnpikes thrived from c.1800 to c.1840, as did the passenger stagecoach and the Conestoga wagon. The coach had places for 8 to 14 passengers and was drawn by four or six horses; the wagon, for freight, was drawn by six or eight horses. The traffic over the turnpikes also included droves of horses, cattle, and sheep. Settlers going West often used turnpikes on the first part of their route. Tollgates were 6 to 10 mi (9.7–16.1 km) apart, and tolls were commonly from 10¢ to 25¢ for a vehicle, depending on its type. Turnpikes that were not profitable were turned over to the states. After the coming of canals and railroads, abandonment became general.
The Modern Highway System
In more recent times the multilane expressways have often followed the abandoned rights-of-way of the old turnpikes. The opening (1940) of the first multilane superhighway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, began a new era in tollroad construction. Since then every state has constructed at least one superhighway on either a toll or nontoll basis. Those that do charge tolls are most commonly located E of the Mississippi River.
The American superhighway network is commonly known as the Interstate Highway System (officially the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways). Authorized (1944) by an act of Congress, the interstate system is designed to provide an efficient national transportation system for ordinary use as well as in case of war or other emergency. Construction began in 1956 (although many previously constructed roads were absorbed into the system) and took thirty years to complete; it encompasses 42,796 mi (68,869 km) of roads, all but a few miles of which are completed. It is financed largely by the Federal Highway Trust Fund (established 1956), into which are paid the revenues from most highway-related federal taxes.
The states now also derive considerable income from various forms of road and motor-vehicle taxation, reducing the need for toll collection. Most of the larger roads that still charge tolls have been modernized with electronic toll-collection technology that eliminates the need for coins or tokens at the tollgate; sensors in the tollgate record a car passing through (if the car is equipped with the correct transponder, usually called a tag), and the toll is then charged to the tag's owner's account. In recent years an increasing number of toll roads have been built or operated by private companies
See M. H. Rose, Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1941–56 (1979); D. L. Brodsly, Freeway (1981); B. E. Seely, Building the American Highway System (1987).