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Transportation Nation

More toll roads and higher tolls for U.S. drivers

David Schultz Jul 29, 2011
Transportation Nation

More toll roads and higher tolls for U.S. drivers

David Schultz Jul 29, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Alright let’s get on with something a little more pleasant, shall we? Like… vacation! I’ve got one coming up in a couple of weeks. Leavin’ on a jet plane.

But millions of folks are hitting the road for their summer trips this year. And if you’re still working up a budget for a road trip? Don’t forget to factor in tolls. Across the country, new toll roads are opening and existing ones are making you pay more for the privilege. David Schultz of station WAMU explains why.

David Schultz: Kyle Ahmadi and his family are traveling from their home in northern Virginia up to New York City and Niagara Falls. Right now, they’re standing near the vending machines at a rest stop in Maryland.

Kyle says the cost of tolls will add up for his family’s vacation caravan.

Kyle Ahmadi: Yeah, I’m actually concerned because we’re two cars. We have two cars. So each one, it’s probably going to be like $70, $80 just because of the tolls.

To the west of Washington, residents in suburban McLean, Va. are also worried about tolls, but for a different reason. One of the major east-west arteries here is the Dulles Toll Road. Its tolls have crept up slowly over the past few years and they’re at two dollars now. But dramatic increases are expected in the near future.

Rob Jackson, with the McLean Neighborhood Association, is worried that at some point, driving on the highway will become unaffordable.

Rob Jackson: Once you hit five, six seven — they’re talking as high as $11 in the future per one-way trip. Unless we have incredible inflation, you’re going to see more and more people saying, “I’m just not going to pay that.”

And that means more commuters will avoid the toll road, and opt instead for the local roads that cut right through Jackson’s community.

Jackson: These are two-lane roads, and I don’t think they’d be easily widened. The right-of-way costs would be immense. And I don’t think the neighbors would want a four, six-lane road going through their neighborhood.

These kinds of issues are cropping up all across the country. Ron Kirby is a local transportation planner in the D.C. region. He says states and cities are looking to toll roads as the solution to their transportation funding problems.

Ron Kirby: There isn’t enough revenue to add new facilities. There’s barely enough to maintain and operate what we have. So this is the place people are turning to.

The only problem is, any new toll roads have to win approval from local political leaders. Kirby has been studying the political feasibility of tolls in the D.C. region, and he says, surprisingly, many people are actually fine with building new toll roads. But…

Kirby: When you start changing tolls on roads they’re depending on, raising them, or proposing to put tolls on roads that are not yet tolled, that’s a very different matter.

For example, there are plans to raise tolls by almost two dollars on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is just about the only way to get to and from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. That doesn’t sit too well with Mike McDermott, a state legislator from the Eastern Shore, speaking at a recent public hearing on the toll hikes.

Mike McDermott: The day has come for you to get off our back!

People cheering

The political response to a new series of toll roads in the D.C. region has been, shall we say, a little more subdued. One new toll highway opened earlier this year in Maryland, another is under construction in Virginia and a third is in the planning stages. Something to keep in mind as you head out on a road trip this summer.

In Washington, I’m David Schultz for Marketplace Money.

Vigeland: David’s piece came to us from the Transportation Nation reporting project.

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