Maine Turnpike Authority tentatively approves toll hike package

A motorist and her dog wait for change at a toll booth, Thursday, July 19, 2012, in Biddeford, Maine.
Robert F Bukaty | AP
A motorist and her dog wait for change at a toll booth, Thursday, July 19, 2012, in Biddeford, Maine.
Posted Aug. 02, 2012, at 2:08 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 02, 2012, at 6:20 p.m.
Eric Zelz | BDN

Maine Turnpike Authority board members Thursday tentatively agreed to a modified slate of toll increases that reduces the size of toll hikes in New Gloucester and West Gardiner and imposes a smaller increase on the per-mile toll rate for E-ZPass transponder users.

The turnpike board’s 5-2 vote in favor of the toll increase package isn’t final. The panel plans to revisit the issue on Aug. 16 after turnpike officials have finished revenue calculations.

If the vote stands, cash tolls would rise by $1 at the York toll plaza and by 50 cents at toll plazas in Gray, New Gloucester, Wells and West Gardiner. The per-mile rate for E-ZPass transponder users would jump about 10 percent, to 7.4 cents per mile from the current 6.7 cents. Commercial trucks would have to pay 4.25 times the rate of passenger cars, up from the current commercial vehicle multiplier of four times the passenger vehicle rate.

The toll hike vote comes about two months after the Maine Turnpike Authority announced it needed to raise tolls to generate $26 million annually in additional revenue to fund $113 million in bridge repairs on northern sections of the 109-mile highway over the next five years. The higher tolls also would pay for $82 million in paving and other road improvements and pay off debt from a highway widening project completed in 2004.

Much of the public reaction to the turnpike authority’s initial proposal for toll increases — which would have included 75-cent hikes in New Gloucester and West Gardiner — centered on concerns about equity for drivers in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

In response, turnpike authority board members developed an alternative proposal and proposed shrinking the total size of the toll increase to about $21 million by deferring a number of highway maintenance and repair projects.

James Cloutier, a turnpike authority board member from Portland, proposed the tentative toll increase package that met with board approval Thursday.

A smaller E-ZPass rate increase will encourage more drivers to purchase the transponders, he said, and commercial traffic — like other traffic — will benefit from a lower E-ZPass rate even if the commercial vehicle multiplier increases.

In addition, he said, the toll increase package won’t discourage additional drivers from taking short trips on the turnpike. His proposal kept the minimum E-ZPass toll charge — which transponder users pay even for one-mile trips on the highway — at 50 cents per ride, instead of adopting an earlier proposal to increase it to 60 cents.

Robert Stone, an authority board member from Auburn, said the tentative toll increase package fails to make the turnpike’s toll structure more equitable.

“I believe it exacerbates inequity,” he said.

And it makes it more difficult for commercial vehicles to transport goods to Maine consumers, meaning consumers will ultimately feel the effect, said Bruce Van Note, the state’s deputy transportation commissioner and an authority board member.

“You’re really just shifting [the cost] to the shelf,” he said.

Maine is already an expensive state for transporting goods, he said. “You can’t undo where we are. All you can do is not make the situation worse.”

While board members might finalize a toll increase package on Aug. 16, they suggested asking turnpike authority staff to more thoroughly explore additional changes to the toll structure.

Stone, the board member from Auburn, proposed setting a flat, per-mile rate for E-ZPass users and eliminating the minimum toll charge as a way to encourage short turnpike rides; eliminating discount programs for frequent turnpike users; and elevating cash tolls to reflect the true cost of collecting them.

“We should not be hesitant to charge somebody who is making a decision that they’re not going to purchase an E-ZPass transponder,” he said. “They should pay for that toll collector standing there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, taking their cash.”

Stone’s proposals on Thursday come on the heels of suggestions he made last month that included raising cash toll rates at some exit tolls in Cumberland and York counties and tolls where drivers leave the turnpike to use Interstate 295, which has no tolls.

Board members said Thursday they were interested in taking a closer look but weren’t ready to embrace it.

“Any time you do something big at the end, you have unintended consequences,” Van Note said.

While E-ZPass is a major part of the solution for achieving equity, said Dan Wathen, chairman of the turnpike authority board, it won’t work for everyone, especially those without bank accounts and credit cards.

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