Crossing that (toll) bridge when you come to it

Drivers in France and Spain use their bank cards to pay road tolls at toll booths, but that's not often a viable option in the United States. This may surprise you, given its reputation for leading the pack in technology. Some U.S. tolls can be paid at the booth with credit cards, but many cannot. But don't think that the fact you can't swipe a credit card at a toll booth means it's cash only. Some tolls must be paid online (by credit card) before you drive the roads or cross the bridges.

Toll roads in the United States

Most drivers in this country have traveled a toll road or bridge at some point. In the U.S., there are just over 6,000 miles of toll roads and bridges. This number is less than you might think because tolling is restricted by the federal government on any roads it finances or helps to finance.

But the federal government hasn't had the money to finance all the roads and bridges needed. Many states use the toll system to finance transportation infrastructure without federal help. Users hand over tolls that pay for the highway or bridge they are crossing, and the overflow is often used to finance other projects.

In the beginning, all tolls were paid in cash. As time passed, some systems began to accept credit or debit bankcards, while others jumped to electronic payment systems only.

Cash or credit card

Some tolls can be paid with credit cards at the booth. For example, all Ohio Turnpike interchanges accept major credit cards. And the South Bay Expressway in San Diego takes cash but also allows you to swipe a credit card. The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority also accepts cash and credit cards at the toll booths.

Cash but no credit cards

You can't use credit cards at toll booths to get access to New York State Thruway Authority toll roads. Cash is accepted at the toll booths, and your only other option is to open E-Z Pass accounts. You can fund an E-ZPass account with a credit card through the Thruway's automatic replenishment billing.

This is also the case in Florida. You can pay the Florida Turnpike tolls in cash at the toll booth, or you can sign up for the SunPass and pay electronically.

Electronic payment only

Anyone who remembers when it cost $1 to cross the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco was around in the cash-only days of U.S. toll booths. These days, the toll rate has radically increased, but so have your options for paying it ... although cash is no longer one. All tolls are electronic.

These are your choices: Get a FasTrak account that buys you discounted fares; set up a license plate account, where any crossing tolls are automatically charged to your credit card; make a one-time payment before or after a bridge crossing. But the toll booths are empty, and you are not allowed to stop at them to offer cash or plastic.

Similar pay-online systems are set up around California and some other states. For example, if you want to travel on toll roads in Orange County, CA, you must either pay online, pay in cash at a cash payment center in advance, or set up a payment account in advance.