May 19, 2013

Maine Turnpike toll hike pays off

Six months in, revenue has increased by 16 percent even though traffic has dropped by 4 percent.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

In the first six months since the Maine Turnpike Authority increased tolls at various spots along the 106-mile highway, revenue increased by 16 percent even as the number of cars on the turnpike dropped by 4 percent.

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The Maine Turnpike was busy with traffic Thursday near Exit 44 in South Portland. An analysis of turnpike traffic by toll interchange suggests that motorists have taken steps to avoid some of the plazas that have had increases in their fares during the last six months.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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During the same period, the authority signed up more than 17,000 new E-ZPass customers to go with the 192,000 who held E-ZPasses before the toll increase. About half of them joined online, an option not previously available. That brings the total number of E-ZPass holders to about 209,000, or 1 in 6 Mainers.

The numbers suggest that the authority's decision to raise tolls -- an unpopular move that motorists complained about loudly last year -- is paying off. Barely.

"We are raising the revenue we need, but not much more," Maine Turnpike Authority Director Peter Mills said.

A closer look at the falling numbers of cars on the turnpike also suggests drivers are avoiding the turnpike in order to bypass the fee increases in some areas, although officials expect that drop to be temporary.

At the New Gloucester toll plaza, for instance, the number of vehicles going through has dropped by more than 10 percent from January to April this year, compared to the same period last year. At the York and West Gardiner toll plazas, the drop has been more than 5 percent.

From November 2012 through April 2013, the turnpike took in $51.7 million in revenue, or $7.2 million more than in the same six-month period the previous year. It still needs to raise an additional $14 million over the next six months to meet expenses, but turnpike officials are confident they will be able to hit that number, given the fact that many more travelers come through Maine between Memorial Day and Labor Day. In each of the last five years, the turnpike has taken in an average of $13.6 million more between May and October than it does between November and April.

"It's a difference in the amount and in the type of traffic," said Doug Davidson, the turnpike's finance chief. "Tourists tend to pay cash, and they pay more."

Part of the reason the revenue margin is thin so far is the volume discounts for the heaviest users of E-ZPass that were included when the toll increases took effect on Nov. 1. Those discounts, which have benefited 36,000 customers, or about 17 percent of all E-ZPass holders, so far have amounted to another $3 million in revenue that could have been raised during the last six months.

"The (discount) eats into our revenue, for sure," Mills said. "But we want to reward the heavy users who are here in Maine."

Joe Thibeault, who lives in Saco and commutes to Portsmouth, N.H., every day, used to pay about $60 a month on the old commuter plan. Now, he said he pays between $70 and $80, after applying the 50 percent volume discount.

"I believe they did the fair thing. At least they listened to users," he said. "I hope (the discount) stays permanent. If they change it now, that will look pretty shady."

Corey DeWitt of Kennebunk, who also travels to Portsmouth to work, said he and his wife benefit from the volume discount, but DeWitt said he's still concerned that if turnpike revenues remain tight, the first thing officials will look at is ending the volume discounts.

When the volume discounts were approved last fall, officials had thought they would be temporary. Now, turnpike officials and board members are hopeful that they will be permanent.

"It's subject to review in June, but it looks like we'll be able to leave it in place, which is great," said board member James Cloutier of Portland.

(Continued on page 2)

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