Friday, December 13, 2013
By Eric Russell firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was corrected at 9.a.m. 9/15
Joe Thibeault approaches the E-ZPass lane of the York Toll Plaza on his way home to Saco from his office in Portsmouth, N.H., on Friday. Thibeault faces an increase of more than 100 percent – from about $30 per month to $70 – when the new toll system goes into effect Nov. 1.
Photos by Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer
Joe Thibeault, a commuter from Saco, displays a statement on his car’s back window expressing his anger over the new toll system that goes into effect Nov. 1. “I was shocked,” Thibeault said in response to the increase he faces.
Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer
The Maine Turnpike Authority provided two scenarios that help to demonstrate the Nov. 1 changes to the commuter program that had been offered to E-ZPass holders.
• Below is for a round-trip commute between Lewiston and Portland (Interstate 95 Exit 80 or 75 south to Exit 52 in Falmouth, which connects travelers to Interstate 295)
$3.10 -- Cost under the soon-to-be-eliminated commuter plan
TOLL AS OF NOV. 1
$3.60 -- Cost for all Maine E-ZPass users
$2.90 -- Cost for Maine E-ZPass users with 20 percent discount for frequent use
$6.50 -- Cash cost for non-E-ZPass users
• Below is for a round-trip commute between Saco and Portland (I-95 Exit 36 north to Exit 45, which connects travelers to I-295)
$0.60 -- Cost under soon-to-be-eliminated commuter plan
TOLL AS OF NOV. 1
$1.40 -- Cost for all Maine E-ZPass users
$1.10 -- Cost for Maine E-ZPass users with 20 percent discount for frequent use
$2 -- Cash cost for non-E-ZPass users
Source: Maine Turnpike Authority
Joe Thibeault pays about $30 a month to commute on the Maine Turnpike between his home in Saco and his office in Portsmouth, N.H. Starting in November, he will pay $70 a month.
"I was shocked," he said Friday. "They didn't even phase this in. When anything increases by more than 100 percent, you're going to have some angry people."
Thibeault is among about 23,000 users of the Maine Turnpike Authority's E-ZPass commuter program, which offers discounts to frequent users of specific stretches of the highway.
On Nov. 1, when turnpike tolls are due to increase, the commuter program will be replaced with a volume-based discount system that is designed more like a traditional user fee. Many drivers will benefit, because the program will be offered to all E-ZPass users, not just those in the commuter program. A small percentage of others will be hurt by the change.
The replacement of the commuter program was part of the toll increases that turnpike officials approved last month, saying they were needed to cover operating expenses and highway upkeep, and to pay off past debt.
Commuters received letters last week alerting them to the changes.
The shift away from the program is expected to hurt only about 2,000 customers, less than 9 percent, according to turnpike authority spokesman Dan Morin. But many have responded with outrage, he said.
Chris Roberts of Kennebunk said his wife, Jill Risley Roberts, regularly drives to Portland for work and will go from paying $58 every three months to about $150. He said he's lucky that he doesn't have to use the turnpike much, but the increase will be tough for his family.
Morin said the change was part of the turnpike authority's plan all along, but he acknowledged that it probably didn't draw as much attention as some of the other toll increases did before they were approved.
"We appreciate the frustration of those who are seeing rates go up, but we didn't target those users for a specific increase," Morin said. "It was developed to arrive at a fair and equitable toll rate for all users."
This summer, the turnpike authority proposed raising tolls and the rate for E-ZPass users. Officials then spent several weeks discussing various options with the public and getting feedback.
The authority settled on a per-mile rate increase for all E-ZPass users, from 6.7 cents to 7.7 cents. All users of the commuter plan will become regular E-ZPass users, and all users will be offered discounts based on trips.
Those who travel more than 30 times per month will receive a 10 percent discount. Users who log more than 40 trips will get a 20 percent discount. The biggest discount, 50 percent, will apply to users who drive on the turnpike more than 70 times each month.
Marsha Siviski, who lives in Falmouth and works in Saco, has been paying $110 every three months. As of Nov. 1, that will jump to $210.
"I can't get that 50 percent discount until I make 70 trips a month. Who works 35 days a month?" she said.
Individual toll increases also will take effect Nov. 1. The toll in York will increase from $2 to $3, the toll in New Gloucester will rise from $1.75 to $2.25, the toll at the West Gardiner exchange will go from $1.25 to $1.75, and the toll at Wells northbound and Gray southbound will go from $1 to $1.50.
Thibeault said he paid attention to the discussion of the toll increases, but it was never clear to him how it might affect commuter program users like him.
(Continued on page 2)