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Maine Turnpike Authority board approves toll hikes

Robert F Bukaty | AP
Robert F Bukaty | AP
A motorist and her dog wait for change at a toll booth, Thursday, July 19, 2012, in Biddeford, Maine.
By Scott Thistle, Sun Journal

PORTLAND, Maine — The board of directors of the Maine Turnpike Authority voted unanimously Thursday to a slate of toll rate increases that will help boost revenues for the authority by about $21 million.

“I think these all slice our lunch meat pretty thin,” James Cloutier of Portland and the Cumberland County representative on the board said summing up the effort the board has made to keep the rate increases as low as possible. Cloutier was discussing several late developing options including one that removes a previously proposed increase to the multiplier rate for commercial trucks.

Under the toll plan approved Thursday trucks will continue to pay four times the rate of passenger vehicles. An earlier proposal would have bumped that to 4.25 times adding an estimated $2 million a year in costs to the state’s trucking industry.

The cash tolls at the turnpike’s main barrier tollbooths in York, New Gloucester and West Gardiner will all increase. New Gloucester and West Gardiner will increase by 50 cents going from $1.75 to $2.25 and from $1.25 to $1.75, respectively. The toll at the York plaza will be bumped by $1 going from $2 to $3.

The plan adopted will also increase the entrance tolls for Wells northbound and Gray southbound to $1.

Meanwhile, those using the turnpike’s electronic tolling system E-ZPass will now pay a penny more per mile traveled going from 6.7 cents a mile to 7.7 cents a mile.

Volume discounts for those using the E-ZPass will now start after 30 trips per month. The previous volume discount started at 20 trips.

The final vote, which came after only about 30 minutes of discussion, represents several months worth of research and public meetings where authority members shopped a range of toll hike changes. Pushing the increase are debt service costs that are coming due in the next few years.

But under the new tolling scheme, which goes into effect Nov. 1, the authority’s directors believe any future toll increases would not be necessary until 2031.

Before the vote Thursday the board discussed a proposal by Androscoggin County representative, Bob Stone, that would have pushed for a return to an even per mile rate for all turnpike users. That proposal aimed to push more motorists to an electronic tolling system but would also have required the re-installation of cash toll booths. Under that scenario the per-mile cost would have been set at 5 cents.

Turnpike authority staff outlined several barriers the proposal presented including an estimated $10 million in costs to rebuild tolling booths. Other barriers included a need to widen parts of the turnpike in the Greater Portland area as the new lower per mile rate would likely push traffic volume upward.

Stone said he believed most of the board were truly interested in moving toward a system of tolling that they have dubbed “pure equity” and he would continue to push for that going forward.

For now Stone, an Auburn resident, said Lewiston-Auburn motorists would be faced with cash toll increases but the move Thursday was a small win for the cities busy trucking industry.

“I think we got a little here compared to where we started,” Stone said. “We lost things, things like the commuter discount and got a higher [electronic tolling rate] and certainly higher tolls at New Gloucester and West Gardiner but we were not shut out by any means.”

One of the biggest losers in the new tolling scheme will be those who benefit from the commuter discount, which set steep discounts for those traveling only between set exits on the turnpike.

That change will affect about 10,000 commuters.

To see more from the Sun Journal, visit sunjournal.com.

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