June 6, 2012

Driven to exact a higher toll

The turnpike authority wants to increase motorists' cost of using the road in order to pay down debt from its widening.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

Today's poll: Turnpike tolls

If the Maine Turnpike Authority raises tolls by 26 percent, will you be less likely to drive on the turnpike?

Yes

No

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Maine Turnpike Authority Director Peter Mills

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Toll increase scenarios under consideration

TOLLS PROPOSED by the Maine Turnpike Authority

YORK: $1-increase from $2 to $3

NEW GLOUCESTER: 75-cent increase from $1.75 to $2.50

W. GARDINER/I-95: 75-cent increase from $1.25 to $2

GARDINER/I-295: Stays at $1

SIDE TOLLS: Stay at $1

MINIMUM TOLL: 10-cent increase from 50 cents to 60 cents

E-ZPASS: average rate per mile increase from 6.7 cents to 8 cents

PUBLIC HEARINGS on proposed toll changes on the Maine Turnpike:

AUBURN: 6:30 p.m. June 19 at Auburn City Hall

PORTLAND: 6:30 p.m. June 20 at Portland City Hall

SACO: 6:30 p.m. June 21 at Saco City Hall

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Turnpike tolls

If the Maine Turnpike Authority raises tolls by 26 percent, will you be less likely to drive on the turnpike?

Yes

No

View Results