This story was corrected at 9.a.m. 9/15

Joe Thibeault pays about $30 a month to commute on the Maine Turnpike between his home in Saco and his office in Portsmouth, N.H. Starting in November, he will pay $70 a month.

“I was shocked,” he said Friday. “They didn’t even phase this in. When anything increases by more than 100 percent, you’re going to have some angry people.”

Thibeault is among about 23,000 users of the Maine Turnpike Authority’s E-ZPass commuter program, which offers discounts to frequent users of specific stretches of the highway.

On Nov. 1, when turnpike tolls are due to increase, the commuter program will be replaced with a volume-based discount system that is designed more like a traditional user fee. Many drivers will benefit, because the program will be offered to all E-ZPass users, not just those in the commuter program. A small percentage of others will be hurt by the change.

The replacement of the commuter program was part of the toll increases that turnpike officials approved last month, saying they were needed to cover operating expenses and highway upkeep, and to pay off past debt.

Commuters received letters last week alerting them to the changes.

The shift away from the program is expected to hurt only about 2,000 customers, less than 9 percent, according to turnpike authority spokesman Dan Morin. But many have responded with outrage, he said.

Chris Roberts of Kennebunk said his wife, Jill Risley Roberts, regularly drives to Portland for work and will go from paying $58 every three months to about $150. He said he’s lucky that he doesn’t have to use the turnpike much, but the increase will be tough for his family.

Morin said the change was part of the turnpike authority’s plan all along, but he acknowledged that it probably didn’t draw as much attention as some of the other toll increases did before they were approved.

“We appreciate the frustration of those who are seeing rates go up, but we didn’t target those users for a specific increase,” Morin said. “It was developed to arrive at a fair and equitable toll rate for all users.”

This summer, the turnpike authority proposed raising tolls and the rate for E-ZPass users. Officials then spent several weeks discussing various options with the public and getting feedback.

The authority settled on a per-mile rate increase for all E-ZPass users, from 6.7 cents to 7.7 cents. All users of the commuter plan will become regular E-ZPass users, and all users will be offered discounts based on trips.

Those who travel more than 30 times per month will receive a 10 percent discount. Users who log more than 40 trips will get a 20 percent discount. The biggest discount, 50 percent, will apply to users who drive on the turnpike more than 70 times each month.

Marsha Siviski, who lives in Falmouth and works in Saco, has been paying $110 every three months. As of Nov. 1, that will jump to $210.

“I can’t get that 50 percent discount until I make 70 trips a month. Who works 35 days a month?” she said.

Individual toll increases also will take effect Nov. 1. The toll in York will increase from $2 to $3, the toll in New Gloucester will rise from $1.75 to $2.25, the toll at the West Gardiner exchange will go from $1.25 to $1.75, and the toll at Wells northbound and Gray southbound will go from $1 to $1.50.

Thibeault said he paid attention to the discussion of the toll increases, but it was never clear to him how it might affect commuter program users like him.

The commuter plan program started 30 years ago, after the Legislature passed a law requiring the Maine Turnpike Authority to offer commuters a minimum 50 percent discount. That law was repealed during the most recent legislative session as part of a broader bill.

To take part in the E-ZPass commuter program, a driver must designate an entrance spot and a destination point — usually near their home and workplace — and pay a discounted flat fee based on the miles traveled.

Individual tolls have increased seven times in the past three decades, while the cost for the commuter program has increased only twice. While it has been a good deal for commuters, Morin said, it hasn’t been a fair deal.

As of Nov. 1, all E-ZPass users will be charged based on actual use, both the mileage and number of trips.

Thibeault and others have little choice. Commuters like him account for only about 5 percent of all turnpike revenue, so the turnpike authority wouldn’t take a big hit even if those riders revolted by avoiding the turnpike.

Thibeault said he could take a different route and not give the turnpike his business, but he already drives more than an hour every day and has no interest in adding time by using Route 1 or other roads.

“I almost don’t have an alternative,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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Twitter: @PPHEricRussell