AUGUSTA — A proposed connector road between Gorham and the Maine Turnpike is back on track after the Legislature easily overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the project Thursday.

The new law sets in motion the planning and permitting process to build a 5-mile toll road connecting Gorham and the turnpike in Scarborough as a way to reduce traffic congestion in those communities.

But even as the Legislature was overruling him on the Interstate 95 connector road, LePage introduced a bill Thursday to eliminate the Maine Turnpike Authority and the turnpike’s toll system by 2027, and fold the agency into the Maine Department of Transportation. The bill will go before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, but it has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.

During a town hall meeting in Gorham in March, LePage said the turnpike should have just one toll booth near the New Hampshire border.

“The only toll we should have is for the visitors coming in and out of the state in the summer months,” he said, adding that Mainers who commute to New Hampshire for work would be offered a tax credit on their tolls.

The governor’s new bill says all toll facilities would be removed except the one at York. It wasn’t clear what it would cost to pass through the toll and how the governor’s bill would replace the revenue generated by the tolls on the turnpike.

LePage said he supports the idea of the connector road, but vetoed the bill because he opposes the plan to operate it as a toll road under the turnpike authority. In his veto message, LePage noted that the Maine Department of Transportation and the turnpike authority have been studying the issue since 2007 and he agrees the traffic problem needs to be resolved.

“Maine citizens already pay enough in tolls when they travel in certain areas of the state, and we should not add additional toll costs to Maine citizens and businesses. I would support this project being done by the Maine Department of Transportation through general obligation bonds, as long as it can be done without the need for tolls,” the governor wrote.

SOLUTION FOR HEAVY CONGESTION

But the legislation, L.D. 905, passed both the House and the Senate on unanimous votes, and his veto was overridden 35-0 in the Senate on Thursday and 125-18 in the House on Wednesday.

The new law authorizes the turnpike authority to build a toll road linking the turnpike with Route 114 south of Gorham. The intent is to get drivers off heavily congested roads connecting Gorham, Scarborough, Westbrook and South Portland, said Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, the bill’s sponsor.

Gorham was the fastest-growing municipality in Maine from 2010 to 2013, according to the U.S. Census, and traffic has become congested on local roads, particularly routes 114 and 22, McLean said. During morning and afternoon rush hours, it often takes 45 minutes to an hour to drive 8 miles to downtown Portland, he said.

Local officials and traffic analysts have recognized the need to ease the congestion for years. According to a 2012 feasibility study by the turnpike authority, there were 64 high-crash locations in the south Gorham area and seven intersections that were identified as inadequate to handle traffic volumes.

Now that the bill is law, it starts the process for designing and permitting the spur, but doesn’t guarantee it will be constructed soon.

TOLLS PAY FOR connector costs

“It is merely the next logical step in a process that has been ongoing for years,” Peter Mills, the turnpike authority’s executive director, told the Legislature’s Transportation Committee during a public hearing on the bill.

Mills said making the spur a toll road allows those who use the connector to pay for it, while not “siphoning” highway funds that are needed to maintain roads in other parts of the state.

Under LePage’s proposal to eliminate the turnpike, the turnpike authority would have 10 years to transfer all of its duties to the MDOT.

The governor’s legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, and Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, would prohibit the turnpike authority from issuing bonds after October as a way to prepare to merge the agencies. By April 2018, the authority would have to provide the MDOT with a plan to pay down outstanding debt.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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