A state environmental agency has issued preliminary approval for a permit to relocate the Maine Turnpike’s York toll plaza in what could be the final step in a long and contentious process.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection approval would allow cash collection lanes at the new toll plaza, which several York residents and town officials have said they oppose for safety and environmental reasons.

The DEP issued a draft decision Tuesday regarding the Maine Turnpike Authority’s proposal to build a new toll plaza in York that would include both cash collection lanes and high-speed “open road tolling” lanes for E-ZPass holders. A public comment period on the draft decision ends at 5 p.m. Tuesday, and the final decision will be issued by Sept. 15.

As proposed, the toll plaza would include six open E-ZPass lanes (three northbound and three southbound) with scanning equipment mounted overhead that does not require drivers to slow down, as well as nine lanes with toll booths for cash collection (four northbound and five southbound). The new toll plaza would be at mile 8.8 of the Maine Turnpike – 1.5 miles north of the existing York toll plaza – and would cost roughly $40 million to build, including demolition of the existing toll plaza.

At a public hearing in May on the Turnpike Authority’s Natural Resources Protection Act permit request, several York residents and officials voiced opposition to the proposal.

Nearly all of the 26 people who testified during the two-hour hearing said they oppose the project because it uses outdated technology, would negatively impact land in the area and increase air, noise and light pollution near the plaza. They said an all-electronic toll system that collects tolls via E-ZPass and by billing drivers whose license plates are scanned would be a safer and more environmentally friendly option.

Opposition group leader Marshall Jarvis did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Supporters of the Turnpike Authority’s proposal, including two toll collectors, argued during the hearing that the current toll plaza is in a dangerous spot and that the new plaza would have a minimal impact on the environment. The project would include demolishing the existing toll plaza after the new one is completed, narrowing the turnpike in that area to six lanes and restoring the surrounding wetlands.

DEP officials agreed with the Turnpike Authority’s argument that a combination of electronic and cash collections is the most practical option for the new toll plaza in terms of safety, revenue and reducing traffic on secondary roads, with an acceptable level of environmental impact.

Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills said Wednesday that the presence of cash collection lanes at the new plaza was the only issue up for debate at the May hearing, and that he had expected the DEP to side with the Turnpike Authority. Mills said cash collection remains an essential source of revenue even though it requires building additional lanes.

Massachusetts has transitioned to a cashless system that includes scanning license plates and mailing out bills to drivers, but Mills said that system would not work effectively in Maine because there are fewer regular commuters and a higher percentage of out-of-state motorists.

Mills said collecting from those drivers would require a back office filled with “hundreds of people looking at computer screens trying to read license plates,” looking up addresses and mailing out letters.

“We have people from all 50 states and all 10 (Canadian) provinces go through our toll system,” he said. “There’s a lot of impediments to being able to collect through a back-office operation.”

Mills estimated that the Turnpike Authority would lose $7.5 million a year in uncollected tolls – roughly 5 percent of its annual revenue – if it eliminated cash collection in York.

If the DEP’s approval is finalized, the Turnpike Authority can begin soliciting bids to build the new toll plaza, Mills said. The construction and demolition process is expected to take about three years.

Mills noted that opponents of the project will have an opportunity to appeal the permit approval before it is finalized.

“I don’t know what the basis of the appeal would be,” he said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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Twitter: @jcraiganderson