Turnpike Authority wants to swap commuter-discount system for E-ZPass

Posted Jan. 10, 2012, at 9:43 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Turnpike Authority wants to substitute its 30-year-old commuter-discount system with E-ZPass, the electronic toll-taking system.

The authority believes the system will make tolls more equitable for drivers who use the turnpike for a few miles but often pay the same as motorists who use more of the road. However, the bill could mean increased tolls for some new E-ZPass users and less revenue for the quasi-public agency.

The proposal is part of LD 1623, an omnibus bill designed to update the powers and the authority of the MTA.

The legislation was presented to lawmakers on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday. In addition to swapping out the commuter-discount system established in 1982 for an across-the-board E-ZPass system, the bill would allow the authority to acquire more land for expansion and to raise tolls during high-traffic times such as holidays.

Dan Morin, a spokesman for the MTA, said the authority didn’t have immediate plans to use the toll-raising power. The MTA experimented with raising tolls during the holidays in 1991, but quickly abandoned the effort after significant public backlash.

There could be some public resistance to the authority’s plan to update the commuter discount system.

Executive Director Peter Mills said the move was designed to make tolls more equitable among motorists. Mills noted that the current commuter discount was developed when paper tickets were used during toll-taking.

Mills said the commuter-discount system was underutilized, perhaps because users are required to pay three months’ worth of fares up front.

He said switching to E-ZPass would give discounted rates to most motorists who used the system. The agency estimated that 43.7 percent of E-ZPass patrons would pay less under the proposal, while 45.1 percent would pay about the same.

Another 11.1 percent would pay more. It wasn’t clear Tuesday which motorists this would affect. Morin said the agency was developing a more thorough assessment.

The proposal would lead to about $1.6 million in annual revenue losses because E-ZPass rates are lower than standard cash rates. However, Mills hoped the change would yield lower operational costs, presumably fewer toll workers.

The Transportation Committee is expected to work the bill further on Jan. 17.

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