Lewiston turnpike director sees toll answers in E-ZPass

Traffic slows for the York tolls on the Maine Turnpike last winter.
Traffic slows for the York tolls on the Maine Turnpike last winter.
Posted July 08, 2012, at 10:15 a.m.
Last modified July 19, 2012, at 4:14 p.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — Bob Stone has been crunching some numbers and when it comes to who pays what for tolls on the Maine Turnpike, he has some ideas.

The first being that Lewiston-Auburn-area travelers and businesses should be spared another toll hike.

Stone, a member of the Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors, will officially present what he believes is a fairer proposal later this month.

And he has another idea that he says would reduce the number of northbound travelers who divert off the turnpike — away from Lewiston-Auburn — and onto toll-free Interstate 295.

“I’m just going to lay it out and say, ‘Look, the Lewiston-Auburn area does not enjoy the ability to jump in a car and drive to Augusta toll-free,’” Stone said during a meeting with the Sun Journal last week.

Stone, 63, of Lewiston, was confirmed by the state Senate in September to represent Androscoggin County on the MTA board.

The longtime banker is fresh off a series of public meetings by the authority to gather feedback on proposed toll increases.

The proposal favored by MTA staff, as presented at public meetings in Auburn, Portland and Saco in June, would bump the turnpike’s barrier tolls at New Gloucester from $1.75 to $2.50; at West Gardiner from $1.25 to $2; and at York from $2 to $3.

The toll increases are needed to raise an additional $26.5 million a year to meet the authority’s debt payments in the years ahead.

Stone said some of that new revenue should come from increases on the tolls paid by those entering or leaving the turnpike at I-295.

Stone also advocates for a $2 toll at exit 45, the Maine Mall exit, “if it’s possible,” he said. There is a $1 entrance and exit toll currently on exit 44, which connects I-95 to I-295, but many motorists use exit 45 to connect to I-295 because it does not have an exit toll. His plan would raise the toll for the free exit.

“E-ZPass is absolutely critical in my proposal,” Stone said, because, $2 each way is an “exorbitant” price to commute between Scarborough and Portland. If that commuter is on E-ZPass, his or her toll would be pro-rated per mile and “substantially cheaper,” he said.

Three turnpike exits — one just north of West Gardiner, one at the I-95-to-I-295 spur in Falmouth and one in Portland — currently allow drivers to access the toll-free I-295 after paying a $1 toll to leave the turnpike. Drivers on I-295 must also pay a $1 toll at those three locations to get on the turnpike. Stone said his proposal would increase the entrance and exit tolls at West Gardiner and Falmouth to $2.

“It’s 53 miles that there is no toll involved (on I-295) to any great extent, and we cannot be expected to bear a 75-cent increase (at New Gloucester) when there is obvious diversion going on (onto I-295),” Stone said. “The community has made its views very clear that we don’t mind paying our fair share, but our fair share is much less than 75 cents more, and there’s an opportunity to toll both ends of 295 and generate some income, which would reduce the cost to Lewiston-Auburn residents.”

Stone’s plan, which he said is a result of listening to those who attended the public meetings, was not one of the 10 options offered by MTA officials.

How much support he will have from the other six voting members of the MTA board remains to be seen. Stone said that when he pitched his proposal via email this week, it was met with a “lukewarm reception.”

Board members include representatives from York, Cumberland and Kennebec counties, as well as a nonvoting member from the Maine Department of Transportation.

“I’m only one vote on a seven-member board,” Stone said. But like many in the community, he said he felt the proposal to hike tolls by another 75 cents at New Gloucester was unfair, especially because the turnpike serves as the main highway for Lewiston-Auburn travelers and commerce.

Stone will make his proposal during the MTA’s board meeting Wednesday, July 18, at the agency’s headquarters in Portland.

The amount of revenue his proposal would generate is still being calculated, he said, and whether it’s enough to offset the proposed toll increase at New Gloucester remains to be seen.

“But one of my main areas of concerns is the 295 freebie from Scarborough to Gardiner,” Stone said.

During a hearing on the proposed toll hikes in Auburn on June 19, more than 150 people showed up, many to complain about the tolls — proposed and in the past.

Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, said at the hearing, “The problem is that the proposal just adds an across-the-board increase onto an existing structure that’s unfair as it is.”

This week, Morrison said Stone’s suggestion takes a step toward equity for Lewiston-Auburn, but added that equalizing the price all travelers pay per mile on the turnpike is ultimately the best way to go.

Morrison said he believes the MTA staff and board is truly attempting to find a solution that works and is fair, and he’s hopeful of that.

By pushing more people to electronic tolling — using the E-ZPass system — turnpike overhead costs will decrease and in the end that will be the best way to create equity in the system, Morrison said.

“Electronics can help us do that, and we can do that, but it’s a matter of whether the MTA board has the will to do that,” Morrison said. “But you can make (using) cash so onerous both in cost and delays that it will push everybody to electronics, and that’s what ultimately has to be done.”

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said that until the system is geared so everyone pays the same per-mile cost, it will remain inequitable. As to whether the current system is fair, Macdonald said that’s in the eye of the beholder.

“What’s fair with this system?” he said. “It all depends on where you get on.”

Macdonald said a flat rate per mile for all travelers would be his offer.

“Fair to me is you open the turnpike up and you pay for the miles you use,” he said. “You pay for what you use and everybody pays the same rate. That’s what I would do. I think the best way is to charge them by the mile.”

Under the current and proposed plans, drivers using an E-ZPass pay pro-rated tolls for miles driven instead of cash tolls. The new proposal raises E-ZPass tolls to an eight-cents per mile average rate, and never more than a cash toll.

A Sun Journal analysis showed that under MTA management’s proposal, northbound travelers from the exits directly north of the mainline barrier in York or the southbound travelers from exits directly south of the mainline barrier in New Gloucester can travel at rates as cheap as 3 and 4 cents per mile because the cash rate is much lower.

Peter Mills, MTA executive director, said the cure for inequities in the cash system on the turnpike is to build new cash toll plazas, but at $2.5 to $3 million a pop, it’s not worth it, he said. After paying to build new toll plazas, they would cost hundreds of thousands more per year to man them, and “the world is just not headed in that direction,” he said.

Most turnpikes are moving more toward electronic toll collection, Mills said. The ideal scenario for replacing toll collectors with electronic transponders is on exits used mostly by in-state traffic for short commutes; collecting tolls from out-of-state motorists who may not have transponders or noncompatible transponders is more problematic, he said.

“We’re getting cooperation with other states but we aren’t there yet,” Mills said.

In order to have a system that’s fair for everyone, “you have to build a barrier in the Scarborough area,” said state Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston. “If you don’t want to do that, you have to go back and put a barrier up at every exit. If that’s too inefficient, great. So go do something that’s more efficient.”

Macdonald said city officials in Lewiston and Auburn had set a meeting for Monday to discuss the toll hikes and some of the proposed alternatives, including Stone’s. The mayors and city administrators are meeting together on Monday to discussing the topic further before the July 18 MTA board meeting, Macdonald said.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said that the internal policy at the turnpike, which limits the E-ZPass rate to the cash rate, needs to be reviewed. Increasing the northbound cash rate at Wells and increasing the minimum toll in Portland would also help.

“There are some minor tweaks even within [MTA management's plan] that could mitigate the need for the hike in New Gloucester,” LaBonte said.

LaBonte said he hopes that the MTA does not hurry to make a decision on July 19 on how to proceed with the toll adjustments before communities have had a chance to discuss the impact of these changes or offer alternatives.

The MTA board and its staff, which plan to hold two more public meetings on the toll hikes, seem to be listening to the public, Morrison and Macdonald said.

Morrison said Stone’s proposal is a clear reflection of that response.

“This is a good thing he’s suggesting; it’s the right thing,” Morrison said. “I clearly think they got the message. They need to have a serious discussion about changing those tolls and that’s what (Stone) is trying to do and it’s a good thing.”

Whether Stone will prevail is difficult to predict, Morrison said.

“But in the end, you’ve got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I did the right thing.’” Morrison said. “This is the right thing.”

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