PORTLAND, Maine — As state and federal lawmakers continue to resist raising taxes on gasoline, more and more toll roads will spring up to pay for infrastructure improvements, Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills said Thursday.
Mills, who served 16 years as a Maine legislator, said he always viewed the state gas tax as a user fee, and never received any constituent complaints about it. Yet, he said, politicians view an increase of the gas tax as one of the “third rails” of politics — touch it and get zapped. Currently, in Maine, the price of a gallon of gas includes 18.4 cents in federal taxes and 30 cents in state taxes.
But the fact is, funding is needed to maintain the vast transportation infrastructure that the country has built over the past decades, Mills told several hundred gathered for the Portland Regional Chamber’s Eggs and Issues breakfast.
“We need to remind ourselves — and I am reminded of this every day when I go to work at the Turnpike Authority — these structures we’ve built out of concrete and steel, though they seem so permanent and rigid and solid, they are in reality living, breathing, functioning organisms,” Mills said. “They deteriorate.”
Mills said he believes to fund road and bridge projects, more tolls will be put on roads — slowly, at first.
“I don’t know another funding mechanism,” said Mills.
Mills suggested that the future will see highways between cities to move traffic quickly, and those will be toll roads, with fees collected electronically. Smaller highways, such as routes 2, 9, 35, and others, will continue to be funded through a gas tax. And community roads will be maintained through property taxes.
Mills, a former state senator who ran twice for governor in recent years, took over the Maine Turnpike Authority in March 2011 in the wake of a spending scandal that recently led to criminal charges against former Executive Director Paul Violette.
Mills told the crowd Thursday that he recently returned from New York, setting up plans to sell $75 million in new bonds at the end of the month. He also noted that the turnpike was anticipating raising tolls in 2013 by 28 percent, to pay off bonds that were incurred in the recent widening project.
“It is baked into the cake of our financial structure,” Mills said.
The turnpike recently unveiled plans to renovate the New Gloucester Toll Plaza to include electronic high-speed toll lanes, such as those found at the Hampton, N.H., tolls. The new lanes will allow E-ZPass customers to continue through an open toll plaza at highway speeds and unimpeded by toll booths. Cash traffic will be directed to toll plazas to the side of the main road.
Construction and testing will take place this year, with the new lanes officially opening in 2013.
According to Mills, 62 percent of the tolls collected today in Maine are through the E-ZPass system.
Mills also spoke about the role the Turnpike plays in the state’s economy. He said he believes the state missed an opportunity about five years ago, when the turnpike’s plazas were dismantled and new ones were built, with 30-year lease agreements with HMS Host.
Mills said 4-5 million people stop at the Kennebunk North plaza yearly. Yet there’s nothing that welcomes those visitors to Maine, recognizing the plaza as a gateway to the state. A nearby tourism information center in Kittery gets about 400,000 visitors a year, he said.
Mills said he’s speaking with tourism officials to see about making the plazas more reflective of the state. He recently got a loan of some big fiberglass animals — a moose and others — that he’s planning to put at the Kennebunk North plaza, but added that he’s looking for other ideas, too.
One of the big challenges to the state, and to Maine’s tourism economy, was the “three failing bridges” between Maine and New Hampshire, he said. In particular, the high-level bridge that takes I-95 over the Piscataqua River is a problem.
“On Sunday afternoons in August, when the entire state of Massachusetts wants — expects, frankly — a personal appointment to cross that bridge at 4 o’clock in the afternoon in order to get the kids in bed in Boston by 7:30, traffic backs up all the way to Kennebunk, Saco,” said Mills. “This is a significant challenge.”
While many blame the York Toll Plaza in Maine, Mills said the real culprit was the “very poor highway geometry” in New Hampshire, with travelers facing a confusing confluence of highways, secondary roads, dense shopping areas and more.
Basically, Mills said, the turnpike spoon-feeds drivers through the tolls so they can park on the bridge and wait for traffic in New Hampshire to clear.
It’s “dreadful” for the Maine economy, said Mills, but, he added, politically, “how much does New Hampshire care?”
“We have to rely on our neighbor to solve that problem, and I don’t know quite what to do about it,” said Mills.