AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Turnpike Authority is proposing $26 million in toll increases later this year that are likely to hit hardest drivers using toll plazas in York, New Gloucester and West Gardiner.
The toll hike scenario recommended by turnpike authority staff would raise tolls for passenger vehicles by $1 at the York toll plaza, 75 cents at tolls in New Gloucester and West Gardiner, and 50 cents at tolls in Gray and Wells. The scenario would largely spare side tolls located on highway entrance and exit ramps.
The Maine Turnpike Authority says it needs to raise about $26.5 million annually in additional revenue to, over the next five years, fund $113 million in bridge repairs on northern sections of the 109-mile highway, pay for $82 million in paving and other road improvements, and pay off debt from a highway widening project completed in 2004.
“We’ve anticipated this for years,” said Peter Mills, the turnpike authority’s executive director. “We’ve done what we can to mitigate it in the sense that we refinanced a lot of these bonds at much lower interest rates.”
If approved by the turnpike authority board, the toll increases would take effect Nov. 1. The increases for passenger cars would mean a $3 charge at the York toll plaza, $2.50 at New Gloucester, $2 at West Gardiner and $1.50 at both the Wells and Gray tolls.
For a five-axle commercial truck, the toll hike proposal would mean paying 4.25 times the amount a passenger vehicle pays, up from the current rate of four times the passenger vehicle rate. At the York toll plaza, that would mean a $12.75 charge.
Companies enrolled in the turnpike authority’s discount program would continue to receive a 20 percent discount, Mills said.
“We’re being very careful about any rate adjustments on the commercial side,” he said, adding that the turnpike authority plans to speak with trucking industry representatives and the public about alternative proposals.
A Maine Motor Transport Association official said Friday his organization wasn’t prepared to comment on the proposed toll increase.
The Maine Turnpike Authority is planning three public hearings this month to discuss the proposed toll hikes. Those hearings will take place at Auburn City Hall on June 19, Portland City Hall on June 20 and Saco City Hall on June 21, all starting at 6:30 p.m.
The Maine Turnpike Authority, which last raised tolls in 2009, currently raises about $103 million annually in tolls and another $3 million in revenue from its service plazas, Mills said. Estimates for new revenue from raising tolls, he said, account for an expectation that some drivers will choose to avoid the tolls by using secondary roads.
No one wants to see a toll hike, but there’s probably a greater cost to not raising the funds needed to make investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure, said Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association.
“This is to maintain what we have, and that’s critically important in the tourism industry,” he said. “If the roads are beat up or pot-holed or unsafe, they’re just not going to come. And the thing is, they tell everybody about that experience.”
The proposed toll hike isn’t surprising, and it’s necessary to generate more revenue to maintain the road, said Maria Fuentes, executive director of the Maine Better Transportation Association, which represents contractors, engineers, rail companies, airports and others in the transportation sector.
“I think what’s paramount is that the turnpike be funded in a way that it continues to be maintained in a way that’s appropriate relative to what commuters and drivers have come to expect,” she said.
The turnpike authority weighed 10 toll hike options that proposed increases of varying sizes at all turnpike toll booths before settling on the proposal that raises rates at the York, New Gloucester, West Gardiner, Wells and Gray toll plazas.
The proposal to raise tolls comes nearly two months after Paul Violette, the former Maine Turnpike Authority executive director, was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison for stealing tens of thousands of dollars from the agency to pay for upscale hotels, meals at fancy restaurants and spa treatments.
Since Violette’s departure in March 2011, Mills said the Maine Turnpike Authority has trimmed expenses through staff reductions, changes to purchasing policies and refinancing debt. The budget for 2013, according to the authority, will be 11.3 percent smaller than the 2012 budget.
The turnpike authority, for example, has reduced legal expenses, eliminated its lobbying budget and cut back on television advertising. Mills said he expects the authority’s 2014 budget to be smaller than the 2013 spending plan.
However, “the marginal gains we can make through cost-cutting aren’t enough,” Mills said. “The level of this toll increase is dictated because revenue has to be sustained at a certain level.”
The Maine Turnpike Authority says its current toll rates make it the 13th least expensive toll road to travel in the United States when measured by toll charge per mile.