Do tolls really take a toll?

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Many trucking costs are unavoidable. Tolls are one exception. Knowing that tolls can add an extra $40 or $50 dollars to the cost of a load, many drivers and truckload carriers never use toll roads. But sometimes it is probably cheaper to use the toll road than to run out of route to avoid it. How far you can send the truck off route depends on the amount of the toll and the cost of out-of-route miles.

The table below presents an estimated toll cost per mile for different toll roads throughout the country. The toll rate depends largely on the amount of traffic and the number of alternatives a carrier might have. That’s why the Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes are the most expensive toll roads.

The table shows the number of miles a carrier can run off route to avoid 100 toll miles before they would have been better off to run the toll road. Three different operating costs are in play here.

  • Running costs are the lowest level of costs for fuel, maintenance and tires. It assumes that drivers are paid based on the shortest route, whether or not it involves tolls.
  • Variable costs are all the costs, including the cost of paying the driver, for off-route miles incurred in avoiding a toll.
  • Fully loaded cost is the typical cost for a carrier for all miles, including the cost of overhead and equipment.

Breakeven out-of-route miles to avoid 100 toll miles
Estimated Operating cost per mile
Toll/mile Running cost Variable cost Fully loaded
($0.30) ($0.80) ($1.20)
Delaware $0.17 57 21 14
Florida $0.16 53 20 13
Illinois $0.16 53 20 13
Indiana $0.10 33 13 8
Kansas $0.08 27 10 7
Kentucky $0.06 20 8 5
Maine $0.18 60 23 15
Maryland $0.16 53 20 13
Massachusetts $0.14 47 18 12
New Hampshire $0.22 73 28 18
New Jersey $0.19 63 24 16
New York* $0.11 37 14 9
Ohio $0.29 97 36 24
Oklahoma $0.16 53 20 13
Pennsylvania $0.22 73 28 18
West Virginia $0.06 20 8 5
*New York toll rate is net of state’s weight and distance tax of $.05 a mile, which is not applied to toll miles.

If you incur only running costs, you can afford to travel quite a distance off route to avoid an expensive toll rate. The breakeven off-route distance shrinks significantly if you must pay drivers for miles driven to avoid tolls. Whether or not you should pay for such miles is a sensitive subject. Drivers and operators naturally believe they should be compensated, but carriers typically haven’t built that compensation into the freight rate. Instead, carriers increasingly probably will pay tolls in order to keep the shortest miles and pay miles consistent.

Where will carriers find the money to pay tolls? Some undoubtedly will come from shippers as carriers figure tolls into rates for toll-intensive lanes. Already, many carriers levy a surcharge for unavoidable tolls, such as the bridges to New York City and Long Island.

Shippers will fight these increases. So carriers may look to improved equipment utilization to make up the difference. Running extra non-revenue miles to avoid tolls represents an opportunity cost to the carrier. That cost reduces the number of off-route miles a carrier can afford to run to avoid tolls.

But does a carrier really lose utilization by avoiding toll miles? If a driver shows up a half hour later to a destination, does it really affect the amount of revenue the truck generates for the week?

Ten years ago, the answer would have been no. Now, with greater attention placed on drivers’ hours, an hour of driving off route truly is an hour less time to drive on revenue loads.

Also, drivers aren’t willing to be out for three to four weeks at a time. When drivers expect to be home every weekend, there are only a limited number of hours available to use that truck. Factor these concerns into your decision on tolls.