* Toll road operators say toll dodging threatens projects
* Operators are willing to discuss lower toll fees
ATHENS, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Austerity-hit Greeks increasingly refuse to pay road tolls, threatening the viability of the country’s 8 billion euro ($11 billion) motorway expansion plan, private toll operators said on Tuesday.
Road building is crucial to kickstarting the cash-strapped country’s ailing economy and pull it out of its debt crisis, five toll road operators said in a joint news conference.
A growing movement of toll dodgers in protest at austerity measures and road toll hikes have added to delays from red tape and court wrangles. [ID:nLDE70D1S8]
Discouraged by the problems, banks suspended funding a few months ago, the operators said.
“Toll revenues are our oxygen ... Unless they flow in, other sources of funding will not follow,” said Dimitris Gatsonis, a senior manager at the Aegean Motorway consortium, which includes Hochtief.
The percentage of drivers refusing to pay tolls has jumped from 3 to 14 percent of total users in less than a year, an official with one of the operators told Reuters.
The concessionaires asked the government to introduce penalties on toll dodgers.
“There are accumulated problems and there should be a comprehensive solution as soon as possible, for these projects to be viable and bank loans to be repaid,” Gatsonis said.
In order to placate protesters, deputy infrastructure minister Giannis Magriotis said on Monday he hoped that contractors would agree to reduce toll road fees by more than 50 percent. [ID:nLDE70D1S8]
The operators said on Tuesday they were willing to discuss the proposal, along with an extension of their 30-year concessions.
Greece has said it will tender new infrastructure projects of about 2.8 billion euros by 2012, including an airport on the island of Crete and two toll road extensions in Athens. (Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Will Waterman)