YORK, Maine — With little fanfare, the Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors voted to replace the existing York toll plaza at its meeting Thursday. The board also made clear it will seriously consider a plaza 400 feet north of the current location.
If that were to happen, it would almost ensure that no private property would need to be taken for the project.
Although the Maine Turnpike Authority will definitely be exploring other sites further north on the Interstate 95 turnpike, local legislators attending the meeting Thursday took heart that the board was looking at an alternative that essentially kept the plaza at its current location.
“I’m encouraged,” said Rep. Lydia Blume, D-York. “They’ve listened to York that a toll plaza needs to be at or near the current location. I see this as a positive sign.”
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, agreed.
“They’re moving in the right direction. They’re factoring in a lot of concerns of the people of York,” she said.
Ten members of local advocacy group Think Again attended Thursday’s meeting. Think Again has long been concerned about the possible relocation of the plaza and York residents having their land taken by eminent domain. The group has advocated for the plaza to stay at its current location.
Rodney Emery and Richard Gobeille of Jacobs Engineering, hired by the Maine Turnpike Authority to conduct a study of a replacement plaza, told the board Thursday that they anticipate a replacement plaza to have four cash lanes northbound, five cash lanes southbound and three open-road tolling lanes in each direction.
Gobeille said there need to be more soutbound lanes because of heavy Sunday traffic during the summer months. Northbound traffic is not as defined, as people come into the state on different days.
Gobeille said Jacobs analyzed traffic virtually every single day, 24 hours per day, for a year. Based on those numbers, they anticipate that the York toll plaza is not likely to reach 85 percent E-ZPass users until at least 2043. Peter Mills, Maine Turnpike Authority executive director, has long maintained that it is necessary to reach that usage before all-electronic tolling [no cash lanes] becomes feasible. The Maine Turnpike Authority board has already voted not to pursue the all-electronic toll option in York.
The engineers said that the plaza they have designed could be relocated anywhere on the turnpike, with some modifications based on soils and wetlands.
In addition to presenting the board with a proposed plaza design, Jacobs also discussed the feasibility and cost of putting the plaza 400 feet north.
“It’s definitely feasible,” said Rodney Emery of Jacobs, noting it meets all design criteria set by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
Emery said what will drive the decision is whether it’s possible to stage and build the new plaza so close to the old one.
The cost of placing the plaza at this location was not discussed during Thursday’s meeting. Mills said additional work, including test borings, need to be conducted before a cost estimate is ready. He anticipates Jacobs to come before the board again at its late February or early March meeting.
A report by the engineering firm HNTB, conducted last summer, estimated the costs of a replacement plaza at between $29 million and $43 million.
The replacement next to the existing plaza is not the only site the board will ultimately consider. Mills said he wants to give the board a “suite” of choices for the new plaza up as far as Mile 13.
To date, Jacobs has not been charged to look at additional sites. It is anticipated that work would begin in the spring, once the ground was soft enough to conduct tests. The Maine Turnpike Authority is required by the Army Corps of Engineers to look at more than one site.
Blume said even if it turns out to be less expensive to build at other sites, the Maine Turnpike Authority has an obligation to York residents to give weight to the alternative 400 feet away.
“If it’s a matter of money, they should do what it takes to make York happy,” she said.