As the recession accelerates and people drive less, collections on toll roads are slowing down. At the same time, maintenance and constructions costs are going up.
That means the 75 agencies that operate toll roads and bridges from Maine to California are under pressure to increase tolls.
Tolls went up this week for motorists using the Maine Turnpike, a year earlier than the Maine Turnpike Authority had anticipated.
"The overwhelming majority of toll roads just had an increase, or will have an increase (in the coming) year," said Paul Violette, executive director of the authority that operates the 106-mile Maine Turnpike, which doubles as Interstate 95.
Nationally, driving declined in each of the 13 months beginning with November 2007, when average gasoline prices topped $3 a gallon. All told, Americans drove 113 billion fewer miles from the beginning of November 2007 through the end of November 2008, according to the latest data available from the Federal Highway Administration.
Gasoline prices have fallen since then, by more than $1 per gallon this past October. But despite that, motorists continue reducing their driving because of the recession, said Troy D. Green, a spokesman for AAA in Washington.
Going opposite directions
Traffic on the Maine Turnpike dropped about 3 percent last year, and the drop on some toll roads in other states was even greater, in some cases 5 to 7 percent, said Paul Godfrey, a toll expert with HNTB, a nationwide engineering and consulting firm.
HNTB said a number of the 99 toll roads it monitors had already raised rates last year, including New Hampshire's turnpikes, the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and New York State Thruway.
Others either raising tolls or contemplating increases this year, in addition to the Maine Turnpike, include the New York State Thruway (again), Ohio Turnpike, Massachusetts Turnpike, New Jersey Turnpike, Kansas Turnpike and John F. Kennedy Memorial Highway in Maryland.
Most turnpike authorities are freestanding entities, Godfrey said. Toll revenue is required for paying off bonds, in addition to financing maintenance and improvements.
Because of their independence, most turnpike agencies are unlikely to share in the billions of dollars that President Barack Obama wants to pass along to states for infrastructure improvements.
Proposals for toll increases are sometimes met with fierce resistance. Some West Virginia lawmakers have adopted an over-my-dead-body response to a proposal for the first toll increase since 1981 on the 88-mile West Virginia Turnpike.
Value for the dollar
But most motorists have no alternative but to grumble and pay up.
"Nobody is ever for a fee increase, especially now the way the economy is," said Dan Philbrick, who works at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College.
However, he said he doesn't mind paying a little extra to keep the turnpike maintained. "I'm willing to pay more for the peace of mind and the safety I get," he said.
Maine-based users of the EZPass electronic toll payment system, including Philbrick, will see a toll increase of 18 percent, while motorists with an EZPass registered in another state and those paying cash will see an average increase of 55 percent, said Dan Paradee, spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority.
Overall, the new toll rate structure will boost revenues by 23 percent, or an additional $20.1 million a year, Paradee said.
Violette said Maine Turnpike users who last saw a toll increase in 2005 haven't been crying foul over the latest toll increases. Indeed, while there have been past efforts to abolish the Maine Turnpike Authority, there hasn't been any such talk recently.
The Maine Turnpike Authority, which has 500 workers, including 300 toll collectors, puts all of its money back into the highway and administration.
"I wish they didn't have to have this toll increase but on the other hand most people see that they're getting value for the dollar," Violette said. "The money goes back into the highway."