With its upcoming rate hike, the Maine Turnpike Commission has an opportunity to make intra-state travel fairer in Maine.
But a Turnpike staff rate recommendation does just the opposite, actually heightening existing disparities between western and coastal Maine.
We have long complained that Maine has a two-tier highway structure: A free roadway for Portland and its wealthy northern suburbs and a toll road for everyone else, particularly those going north or south from Lewiston-Auburn.
Under the Turnpike staff’s proposal, shoppers and commuters from the Lewiston-Auburn region would pay $2.50 to travel to Portland, a 75-cent increase over the current cash rate at the New Gloucester barrier toll. And, they would pay $2 to go north to Augusta, another 75-cent increase at the West Gardiner Toll Plaza.
Meanwhile, those using I-295 to go from Augusta to Portland or from southern Maine into Portland on I-295 would experience no increase.
Here’s the rub: Access to a free highway system is a tremendous economic advantage for any community, and the development between Falmouth and Freeport demonstrates that.
It’s amazing to think what could have happened in this area had the tolls been lifted in the early 1980s when the original construction bonds were paid off.
Instead, the Portland area got free travel and development and we got toll barriers.
Lewiston and Auburn residents are expected not only to pay to maintain their own stretch of highway but to pay off the debt for widening the Turnpike between Portland and the York Toll Plaza, an expensive project that did this area little good.
The Turnpike staff’s recommendation would simply increase the disparities by relying almost exclusively on large increases in the barrier tolls.
Here’s a better, fairer plan:
• Raise the York Toll by $1, raising $13.8 million.
• Raise all side tolls by 50 cents, including the Falmouth I-295 spur and the Portland I-295 connector, raising $9.9 million.
• Raise the Gardiner I-295 toll by 50 cents, raising another $2.5 million.
That would provide $26 million a year in added revenue, plus shift a bit more of the burden to the communities that already pay the least for interstate access in Maine.
The ideal long-range plan would be a toll barrier on I-295 south of Freeport. Since I-295 is the most heavily traveled interstate in Maine, that would probably cover this increase and provide money to eventually expand I-295.
But it is also a political impossibility given the clout those communities have in the Legislature.
But that’s no reason we should stand still for attempts to further increase the rate unfairness.
Lewiston-Auburn and other western Maine communities should organize to oppose the Turnpike staff’s plan.
Any increase must be approved by the Turnpike Commission, and the local representative on that board is Bob Stone of Auburn.
Meanwhile, we hope our Augusta delegation will weigh in as well. Ultimately, the Turnpike is under the oversight of the Legislature.
A public hearing is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, at Auburn Hall.
Show up and help strike a blow for economic development and fairness.
Sun Journal, Lewiston (June 4)