Thursday, April 24, 2014
Tolls for some drivers on the Maine Turnpike will increase today regardless of whether they use cash or pay electronically with an E-ZPass device.
Paul Norton collects a toll at Exit 46 from a driver heading south on the turnpike Wednesday afternoon. Scheduled toll increases took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
It is the 12th toll increase in the history of the 65-year-old highway and the third since 2005.
Cash tolls will increase significantly at plazas in York, New Gloucester and West Gardiner. The cash toll also is higher for northbound drivers entering the turnpike at Exit 19 in Wells and southbound drivers entering at Exit 63 in Gray.
Cash tolls for drivers entering and leaving the turnpike at other exits, and those entering from Interstate 295 in Gardiner, will not increase.
The increases, which were approved in August by the Maine Turnpike Authority's board of directors, will raise an additional $21.4 million annually. Those funds will go to pay down existing debt and to pay for repairs to bridges, interchanges and pavement.
Turnpike Director Peter Mills said that by raising E-ZPass rates only one cent per mile and offering up to a 50 percent discount for frequent travelers, the turnpike board is easing the economic impact of the increase.
"Two out of every three Mainers already use E-ZPass and will pay less than cash for many trips and get up to half off tolls if they travel the Pike daily," Mills said in a statement released Wednesday.
The toll increases, which took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, appear to have persuaded more drivers to sign up for E-ZPass, according to Dan Morin, an authority spokesman. Morin said there has been a 4.28 percent increase -- from 140,000 in January to 146,000 in October -- in the number of E-ZPass users this year.
"Considering our typical one to 1.5 percent annual increase in the number of drivers using E-ZPass, that is quite significant," Morin said.
But the increases have also angered motorists and prompted a state legislator to file a bill that would make the turnpike authority more accountable to the Legislature.
After holding six public hearings last summer, the turnpike authority decided to give a 50 percent discount to E-ZPass users who make 40 or more trips on the turnpike each month -- a round-trip commute counts as two trips. Those making 30 to 39 trips a month will receive a 25 percent discount. The discounts are set to decrease on July 1 unless the board makes the larger discounts permanent.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said she has filed legislation that would require the authority to report to the Legislature's Transportation Committee next year before deciding whether to make the smaller discounts permanent.
"They (directors) seem to forget that they are running a turnpike for the people of Maine, not for their bond holders," Hill said.
Corey DeWitt of Wells was so upset with the rate increase that he created a Facebook page called "Abolish the Maine Turnpike." The page has been friended by 66 people, most of them griping about the rate increase.
DeWitt's wife, Joleen, commutes from Wells to Portland four days a week and is facing a steep increase in her E-ZPass rates. DeWitt says the increases are not fair to commuters.
"Commuters are driving the economy.... Now they are strapping us even more," he said.
Under the new toll rates, a cash trip the length of the turnpike from York to Augusta will increase from $5 to $7 while the most common cash toll for a standard commercial truck (Class 5) will increase from $20 to $28 for the full route.
Cash tolls at the New Gloucester plaza will increase from $1.75 to $2.25, and from $1.25 to $1.75 in West Gardiner. Cash tolls for motorists traveling north from Exit 19 in Wells and south from Exit 63 in Gray will increase from $1 to $1.50.
Most E-ZPass customers will see an average increase of one cent per mile, Morin said. The turnpike is 109 miles long.
"It's a long commute and it's getting even more expensive," said Daniel Hett, who lives in North Berwick and commutes daily from Wells to his job as administrator for a Lewiston medical practice. He said he would have supported a moderate across-the-board increase for all turnpike users.
Hett currently pays $180 per quarter for an E-ZPass. He used to pay $100. And if the larger discount is lifted in July, he'll have to pay $300 a quarter, he said.
"It's going to have an impact on our economy," said Hett, who has 37 employees. "When you are making $14 an hour as a medical assistant, every dime counts."
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: