Turnpike plays vital role in state economy

Posted Nov. 14, 2010, at 9:56 p.m.

In an Oct. 4 guest column, Christian MilNeil of the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation advocated for the Maine Turnpike Authority to divert tollpayer revenues to fund nonturnpike projects statewide. While MilNeil’s zeal is admirable, his logic misses the mark.

Unlike the Maine Department of Transportation, which is supported by fuel taxes, the MTA receives no taxpayer funding. Revenues to operate, maintain and upgrade the turnpike are derived solely from tolls — user fees paid only by those who drive on the highway. The success of this model is evidenced in the consistently high marks from MTA customers regarding road condition, safety, snow removal and speed enforcement.

In addition to repairing aging bridges and rehabilitating the roadway, the MTA invests a considerable amount in alternative transportation programs that facilitate carpooling, vanpooling, biking and mass transit commuting.

Unfortunately, MilNeil glosses over these efforts and attempts to link the turnpike to a litany of Bangor-area ills, from overpriced sneakers to underpaid workers. Truth is, the turnpike plays a vital role in keeping Maine’s economy moving. In fact, approximately 90 percent of goods — as well as countless tourists and business travelers — enter and exit Maine on the turnpike.

Occasionally, projects that aren’t directly linked but are logically connected to the turnpike are also funded by tolls, such as the Transportation Center in Wells. The MTA underwrote construction of the Wells train station and adjacent 100-vehicle parking lot to accommodate alternative transportation modes, namely rail, carpools and vanpools.

Regrettably, rather than partner with the MTA to help identify similar, viable toll-supported projects, MilNeil and the Maine Alliance for Sustainable Transportation remain entrenched in an antagonistic stance.

Case in point: MilNeil and MAST recently unveiled a plan calling for the MTA to spend $7 million — and $2.4 annually thereafter — to expand ZOOM commuter bus service between Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta. Based on current ZOOM ridership figures, the MTA’s $7 million expenditure would yield only 66 new bus commuters. That works out to a $29,756 per-rider subsidy systemwide for the first year, dropping to a slightly less abysmal $8,536 per rider each year after that.

Even worse, MAST’s scheme is based on its false claim that the MTA soon will embark on a 9-mile, $100 million Portland-area widening. Rather than see a hefty investment made in new capacity when traffic volumes are down, MAST wants to legislatively mandate the MTA to forgo the expansion and instead pay to expand ZOOM bus service. There are two major flaws to this argument.

First, the Turnpike Authority informed MAST last March that a $100 million Portland-area widening plan no longer exists due to lack of traffic growth. Instead the new plan being recommended to the MTA board calls for just 2 miles of new lane construction between the heavily traveled Exits 46 and 48 in Portland. That project is slated to begin in 2018 at a cost of $16 million.

Second, the MTA simply doesn’t have $100 million waiting to be spent. If the MTA wished to undertake any sizable project, it would have to borrow the money and repay it using future toll collections.

Since MilNeil’s overriding concern is reducing Mainers’ dependence on oil, he should welcome what he disparagingly refers to as the “shiny new tollbooth” in York. To keep traffic moving, save energy and reduce emissions, the MTA is working toward implementing open road tolling in York. This will allow E-Zpass-equipped vehicles to pay their tolls at highway speeds without slowing down or stopping; cash customers still would have the ability to pay at staffed tollbooths, just as Hampton, N.H., offers.

Unfortunately, the existing York toll plaza has so many shortcomings — including its dangerous, high-crash location — that it needs to be moved. And that comes with a cost. The payoff, though, will be a safer, less congested and more environmentally friendly turnpike. And that, in a nutshell, is MTA’s goal systemwide.

Scott Tompkins is project information manager for the Maine Turnpike Authority.

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