Tolls: Managing your drop in the bucket

by Sandy Johnson

There’s always too much month left at the end of the money, the saying goes.

It’s as true for government as it is for the rest of us, and those with roads and bridges to pay for are turning to private-public partnerships – 3Ps – to make up the difference.

In Canada, there were nearly 50 such infrastructure projects under contract at the federal, provincial, or municipal level last year.

In the US, 31 states allow 3Ps.

Private investors want a healthy return, so for every shiny new Gordie Howe International Bridge or Massey Tunnel replacement, you can count on another toll or user fee.

No matter what you think about 3Ps, the sheer number of highway, bridge and tunnel operators in Canada and the US can make fleet compliance complicated.

Every authority has its own set of rules, and all-electronic toll collection makes it easier to flex the rates depending on the time of day or traffic congestion.

Need to cross the Fraser River on the Port Mann Bridge? That’ll be $9.45, unless it’s between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. when the rate automatically drops by half.

Then there are all those nickel-and-dime charges that get tacked onto your bill. Transponder lease fees, periodic maintenance fees, paper statement fees…they add up, especially if you have accounts with multiple tolling authorities.

Are you reviewing those bills to make sure the charges are correct? Electronic tolls are still cheaper and simpler to manage than using cash.  I remember passing through Indiana on I-90 when one of the toll booth gals must have sensed my panic at running out of change.

She changed my paper money into enough coins to finish out the route. What did a girl from the Alberta prairies know about toll roads?

I’m learning. Here are a couple of lessons I want to pass along:

Non-taxable distance
In general, toll miles are taxable miles, but some jurisdictions allow nontaxable distance for travel on a toll highway.

For example, New York imposes a highway use tax (HUT) based on distance traveled on public highways, excluding toll-paid portions of the New York State Thruway.

It would be a double-tax if you paid to use the Thruway and were charged HUT. Therefore, you can subtract the toll distance traveled on the Thruway system from your HUT-reported distance.

Toll miles in New York are exempt only on your HUT return, though. Don’t try to take credit on your HUT return for all the tolls you pay in New York on your International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) return.

The only toll miles that are tax-exempt from paying fuel tax under IFTA are on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

If you have traveled and paid a toll that qualifies for a tax credit, include these miles in your ‘total IFTA miles’ and exclude them from taxable miles. If you’re audited, you will need to provide copies of the toll receipts.

Know before you go
What if you use a toll road without a transponder? Or you transfer a transponder from one unit to another? (Is that even allowed?)

Do your homework.

If you use the 407 ETR in Ontario and your transponder isn’t valid or doesn’t match the vehicle it’s registered to, you’re subject to a ‘camera’ charge plus higher tolls per trip. If you’re pulled over by the police, you’ll face additional fines.

Services like E-ZPass, Bestpass and PlatePass promise compatibility across different electronic tolling systems, but none is universally accepted. Check to see what reports each one offers. Not every service’s reports are easy to use.

Tolls are not a fuel tax or a mileage tax; they are a user fee. But like taxes, they can be managed and kept in check. Every bit helps when you need the stretch your money to the end of the month.


Sandy Johnson has been managing IFTA, IRP, and other fleet taxes for more than 25 years. She is the author of the free book 7 Things You Need to Know About Fleet Taxes, and operates, which provides vehicle tax and license compliance services for trucking operations. She can be reached at 1-877-860-8025 or www.

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