MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To another story now and an alert to drivers. Many of those freeways that you're using may not be free for long. Several states are opening new toll roads this year. Rates on many existing turnpikes, some tollways are going up. And even more tolls are likely on the way. The Trump administration's infrastructure plan may force more states to impose them. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm driving on Interstate 90 from Chicago into northwest Indiana. I've just paid a $5.20 toll to go over the Chicago Skyway. And now I'm approaching the first Indiana toll.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two-twenty.
SCHAPER: How much?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two-twenty.
SCHAPER: That $2.20 toll has gone up quite a bit in recent years, and some drivers are not too happy about it.
NICK PERISEMAN: Everything seems like it's getting more expensive any more, and they're trying to recoup their money any way possible.
SCHAPER: Nick Periseman stopped at this Indiana Toll Road plaza on his way home to Port Clinton, Ohio, from a job site in Iowa. He says raising tolls will make more unhappy drivers seek alternatives.
PERISEMAN: If they're up kept how it is, I think it's just going to make people mad.
SCHAPER: You're thinking it will.
PERISEMAN: Yeah. I'm thinking it'll just make them mad, and they're going to take different routes.
SCHAPER: But North Carolina truck driver Mike Edwards doesn't mind paying more tolls so long as the money is spent on improvements.
MIKE EDWARDS: Actually I think it's a good thing as long as they use the money for it is supposed to be - to fix the roads.
SCHAPER: How are they?
EDWARDS: They're pretty rough in a lot of places.
SCHAPER: Putting the money paid directly back into building, improving or repairing the bridge or road that's tolled is actually one of the strongest arguments in favor of expanding tolls.
PAT JONES: I think 2018 is going to be a very good year for tolling.
SCHAPER: Pat Jones heads the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
JONES: We're seeing a number of states that do not currently have tolls express interest in doing so, states like Connecticut, Michigan, Wyoming and others.
SCHAPER: And some states are beyond considering it. New toll roads or lanes are opening this year in Texas, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Austin, Texas, has two new toll road projects slated to open next year, and the highway tunnel beneath Seattle begins charging tolls in 2019. The reason for this surge - Jones says state transportation budgets are tight, and the Federal Highway Trust Fund is nearly insolvent, as the federal gas tax hasn't been increased in 24 years.
JONES: So states are in many cases on their own. They are looking for revenues, and tolling is a very powerful and effective way and a very specific way to pay for new infrastructure as well as generate funds to pay for existing infrastructure.
SCHAPER: At least 27 states have raised their own gas taxes in recent years, but it hasn't been enough. And toll road opponents like Stephanie Kane of the Alliance for Toll-Free Interstates are taking note.
STEPHANIE KANE: They really are the worst funding mechanism available.
SCHAPER: Kane says when you turn a freeway into a tollway, drivers often go out of their way to avoid them.
KANE: So you have this awful traffic diversion. Cars end up on secondary roads that were not built to have that kind of volume of traffic. And so these roads that are surrounding the toll are getting torn up more quickly. The local communities see a lot more congestion.
SCHAPER: Kane also calls tolls a regressive double tax on top of fuel taxes, and she claims they're inefficient, saying it can cost up to 11 cents to collect every toll dollar. But she and others fear that the Trump administration's new infrastructure plan which is expected in the coming weeks will rely on state and local governments to come up with the vast majority of infrastructure funding, and that in turn will likely force them to put their hands even deeper into drivers' wallets. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BUDOS BAND'S "T.I.B.W.F.")
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