March 12, 2010

Turnpike tolls set to increase early Sunday


— By

Staff Writer

It's almost time for Maine Turnpike travelers to keep more money in their vehicles. Toll increases will take effect Sunday at 12:01 a.m.

The Maine Turnpike Authority officially adopted toll increases in mid-December for the 106-mile highway stretching from York to Gardiner. Those who buy the E-ZPass get lower rates, but even some of those users will pay more.

If you commute from Biddeford to Portland on a daily basis, for instance, your E-ZPass cost is increasing from $39 to $58.50 per quarter for unlimited use.

Still, officials said, the rate structure has been designed to make those motorists who pay cash -- including many tourists -- bear the brunt of the increases. This has spurred demand for the E-ZPass.

''We are using the E-ZPass program to keep the tolls as low as possible for those Maine residents who use the turnpike on a regular basis,'' said turnpike authority spokesman Dan Paradee. ''We are not interested in giving a toll discount to those people who come to visit us every summer.''

Some changes already have been implemented.

The exact-change, coin-bucket lanes are gone, meaning all drivers not using E-ZPass must stop at a booth to pay an attendant.

Signs were erected this week alerting drivers who pay cash that the so-called side-entry fees will increase from 60 cents to $1, starting Sunday.

The cash toll price at the York mainline plaza will increase from $1.75 to $2, the New Gloucester plaza will go from $1.25 to $1.75, the West Gardiner plaza from $1 to $1.25 and the Gardiner/Interstate-295 plaza from 60 cents to $1.

The cash toll for the entire highway will be $5, or 4.7 cents per mile, one of the lowest rates in the nation for toll roads, Paradee said.

Turnpike officials admit they are trying to persuade anyone who uses the highway, even if just once a week, to buy an E-ZPass. The passes, which allow drivers to roll through toll booths without stopping, cost less to use than paying with cash.

Paradee said demand for tags has doubled in recent weeks. During the six weeks before the toll increase was announced, the authority issued 1,577 E-ZPass tags. In the six weeks after Dec. 12, the authority issued 3,721.

A driver who pays cash to travel from York to Wells will pay $2 per trip. A commuter who purchases a quarterly E-ZPass will pay 33 cents per trip, and one who uses the E-ZPass pay-as-you-go option will pay 80 cents per trip.

Quarterly E-ZPass subscribers pay a fee for unlimited travel between two designated exits for a period of three months. Those fees are structured to guarantee that a commuter gets at least a 50 percent discount.

Officials say the $20 million that the increases should raise is needed to pay for road and bridge repairs. That's why the authority's board of directors voted to move a scheduled 2010 toll increase up a year.

''Advancing the toll adjustment by one year will allow us to continue a responsible capital improvement program,'' Turnpike Executive Director Paul E. Violette said in a prepared statement. ''It will prevent sections of the highway from deteriorating to a point where their eventual repair becomes unnecessarily expensive.''

Stephen Beaudette of Biddeford uses the pay-as-you-go E-ZPass, placing funds in an account and then replenishing it as the funds drain.

Beaudette, who operates a limousine service, said he is a frequent turnpike user. As a state legislator, he also commutes to Augusta when the Legislature is in session.

''Is it a fair increase? It depends on your perspective. If you are opposed in general to any type of increase, then no, it's not,'' Beaudette said. ''But the road is well-maintained and it is vital to our state's economy, so from that perspective, it is fair.''

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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