May 27, 2018
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Travel advisory to MTA: Trust before tolls

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Peter Mills, acting executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, stands by a turnpike tollbooth in Portland recently.

The Maine Turnpike Authority must not only continue to demonstrate why it should increase tolls, it must prove to Mainers it deserves their trust.

The authority needs to find more revenue soon to pay its debt service after the 2008 recession slowed turnpike traffic. The board may make a decision at its July 19 meeting in order for changes to take effect Nov. 1.

But it’s proposing a toll hike at a time when the public is understandably questioning the agency’s reputation after former executive director Paul Violette stole tens of thousands of dollars over several years to pay for upscale hotels, meals at fancy restaurants and spa treatments. Maine expected honesty and oversight and got neither.

Violette has been sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for theft, and several changes have been made in the agency’s management. The staff and board members should keep finding specific ways to demonstrate their openness and reliability.

Already the agency has added to its scheduled list of public hearings to listen to people in Wells and York about the toll increase. New Executive Director Peter Mills gives out his cellphone number to residents. Board members, who will give final nod to the increase, say they are open to considering different locations and scenarios for increasing tolls in order to raise the needed $26.5 million annually over the next five years.

They are making an effort to be available and flexible, and it should continue.

The reality is that the authority will have to raise the needed revenue through a toll increase. So it should do everything it can to reduce the amount of the increase. It should also find the fairest solution. There are many proposals to consider.

So far, under Mills, the authority has tackled a list of cost-cutting measures to soften the blow of the toll increase. It eliminated 20 positions last week, refinanced loans to get lower interest rates and locked in at lower construction costs. It reduced its operating budget by more than 11 percent for 2013 and plans for a 4 percent reduction in 2014.

It has been planning for a toll increase of this size since around 2008, and Mills has been discussing the increase in public since he started work more than a year ago.

It’s unfortunate that cutting costs won’t be enough to ward off a toll increase. But the tough reality is that construction costs for maintenance are expensive but based on the lowest bid. A certain number of people are needed to operate the toll booths. Debt amounts have already been lowered after MTA went to the bond market at the end of February.

Mainers can do their part by switching to an E-ZPass, which automates the tolls process and allows the agency to cut personnel costs. Right now only 62 percent of traffic uses the pass, which charges 6.7 cents per mile traveled and is never more than the cash toll. There is also a volume discount for people who use it a certain number of times per month.

The agency could consider raising the E-ZPass per-mile rate slightly, while still leaving it a cheaper option than cash. It could also slightly increase the minimum toll for vehicles getting on the highway.

Though the final toll increase scenario will probably change, authority staff have proposed an arrangement that would mean a $3 charge for passenger cars at the York toll plaza, $2.50 at New Gloucester, $2 at West Gardiner and $1.50 at tolls in both Wells and Gray. That adds $1 to the York toll, 75 cents in New Gloucester, 75 cents in West Gardiner and 50 cents each in Wells and Gray.

These are substantial increases and are directly opposed to the goals of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration of lowering taxes and making the state more business friendly. LePage has acknowledged the necessity of the toll increase, and we agree. But the public needs a clear message from a trusted agency on why an increase is the most sensible course.

Residents of the Lewiston-Auburn area are rightfully worried about a toll increase in New Gloucester because of the possibility of more truck traffic avoiding the toll to travel on nearby Route 100. They look at Brunswick, which has access to Portland without a toll, and see a greater penalty coming their way that could negatively affect residents’ livelihoods and commerce.

But perhaps a change to high-speed tolling in 2013 will slow the truck diversion in their area. A solution to their concerns should be made clear.

It’s completely understandable that people despise a toll hike, especially given the recent history with the agency’s former director. But the alternatives to raising the additional money are worse than the toll increase.

Mainers could vote to take over the agency and borrow more than $440 million to pay off its bonds, but that would require raising the gas tax. The agency could default on its loans, but that would create more costs for the agency in the long term.

Give credit to Mills for meeting with the public — often an angry public — on this issue. However, he and the board will have to continue to make the case that no other option to toll increases is as effective and that the MTA has cleaned itself up sufficiently to be trusted.

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