Three years after it raised tolls by 23 percent, the Maine Turnpike Authority is proposing a 26 percent toll increase this year, largely to continue paying down debt associated with the widening of 30 miles of the highway in the last decade.
The breakdown of the proposed changes — which would produce an overall increase of $26 million a year — is “an intricate calculus,” said Peter Mills, the authority’s executive director, and several options are being considered.
The option preferred by turnpike authority officials would raise the toll from $2 to $3 at York, from $1.75 to $2.50 at New Gloucester, from $1.25 to $2 at West Gardiner, and from $1 to $1.50 at the Wells northbound and Gray southbound tollbooths.
Tolls would not change at other turnpike entrances.
For E-ZPass users, the rate would increase by an average of 1.3 cents per mile. Turnpike officials plan to host public hearings in Auburn, Portland and Saco later this month to explain the options and get feedback. Any proposed changes could take effect by Nov. 1.
Mills said the $135 million widening “was such a huge project, and we are still paying for it,” nearly eight years after it was completed. “It’s hard to go back and second-guess decisions from 15 years ago, but I think the thought was that this widening benefits current users but future users too.”
Mills did say the widening of the southern section of the highway has provided benefits.
“The stretch between Saco and Scarborough is the busiest section by far. It’s jammed southbound in the afternoon and northbound every morning,” he said. “Can you imagine if we hadn’t widened?”
In addition to debt from the widening project, the proposed toll increase would help pay for turnpike improvements north of Falmouth and a new $24 million exit in Lewiston, said Mills. The proposed increase could have been more if not for the recent refinancing of some of the authority’s bonds to a lower rate, he said.
Mills did not have an exact figure Friday for the remaining debt for the widening project. He said several years of payments remain.
The last turnpike toll increase came in 2009, a year ahead of schedule. The 23 percent increase raised entry fees from 60 cents to $1 and raised cash tolls from $1.75 to $2 at the York plaza, from $1.25 to $1.75 at New Gloucester, from $1 to $1.25 at West Gardiner, and from 60 cents to $1 at the Gardiner/Interstate 295 plaza.
Those changes were criticized, and more criticism is expected this time.
Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he hopes that all options will be considered before a decision is made.
“I’m not going to say I’m for it or against it, but I think it’s a good idea to hear from the public,” he said. “I guess it’s a user fee, so people do have other options, but the turnpike is a well-maintained and convenient road and I understand why people want to use it.”
Democratic Sen. Dawn Hill, who represents York, where the toll increase could be the biggest, said she has concerns.
“Adding $1 to the York toll would be a 50 percent increase. That’s going to force a lot of people onto secondary roads like Route 1, which is already gridlocked this time of year,” she said.
Hill questioned why no public hearing is planned closer to York.
The Maine Turnpike Authority is a quasi-governmental agency that operates the 106-mile highway from Kittery to Gardiner. Its annual operating budget is about $133 million, most of which pays contract costs for various projects.
For instance, Mills said, the top layer of the pavement is replaced every 15 years, to prolong the road’s life.
Mills, a former lawmaker and candidate for governor, became the turnpike authority’s director last year after Paul Violette stepped down in March 2011 amid scandal.
Violette, who led the authority for 23 years, was investigated for theft — mainly in the form of gift cards — from the authority. He pleaded guilty in February of this year and was sentenced to serve 3½ years in prison. Violette also agreed to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the authority.
Mills said the proposed toll increase has nothing to do with Violette. “This toll increase is not the result of a few gifts gone astray,” he said.
The authority remains under financial scrutiny, although many have lauded the leadership of Mills and others. The agency’s recently approved budget included a 10 percent decrease in the revenue fund budget, which covers all operating costs, and eliminated about 20 toll collector jobs to account for the shift from fewer cash-paying drivers to more E-ZPass users.
Brian Parke, president of the Maine Motor Transport Association, which represents Maine truckers, said Friday that he has talked to Mills about some of the proposed changes, but he didn’t want to weigh in until he saw the options.
Parke said many association members use the turnpike and any increases would have an impact.
Mills said all the toll increase options would retain the current 20 percent discount for commercial truckers who use the E-ZPass. He said the goal of most of the options is to ensure that E-ZPass customers are affected least by any changes.
Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:
Correction: This story was revised at 9:37 a.m., June 6, 2012, to correct the average increase for EZ-Pass users in the fifth paragraph.
This story was revised at 3:30 p.m., June 2, 2012, to correctly state that the proposed toll increase for EZ-Pass users would be from 6.7 cents to 8 cents per mile, not 67 cents to 80 cents.