April 1, 2013

Our View: Toll roads should be part of Maine's future

Gas taxes can't fund infrastructure fixes now, and the problem likely will get worse.

The Legislature should quickly dispense with L.D. 818, a bill sponsored by Rep. Michel Lajoie, D-Lewiston, whose constituents are upset about the toll increase on the Maine Turnpike. But the issue of toll roads will not go away.

Lajoie wants to set up tolls on Interstate 295 and charge travelers between South Portland and Gardiner the same fees as his constituents have to pay when they drive on Interstate 95, the Maine Turnpike. This is impractical because federal law is very clear that no state can charge a toll on a road built or improved with federal money. It would require a specific act of Congress to change that.

But the bill does raise an issue that policymakers on the federal level should be actively pursuing. It has been clear for some time that gas tax revenues are not keeping up with the infrastructure needs of the nation.

Roads and bridges all over the country are crumbling, and Maine is no exception. The U.S. Department of Transportation has funded some transportation projects with the 2009 stimulus program, but those funds are all committed.

The problem won't get better on its own. As gas prices rise, people drive less and opt for more efficient vehicles. If hybrid and plug-in electric cars take a bigger share of the transportation fleet, there will be more miles driven with less gas tax collected.

Clearly, tolling is in our future, and it should be in the near future. A toll is a user fee. Only people who drive the road are asked to make a contribution. Those who drive more miles are asked to pay more. The same is true for drivers of heavy trucks, which put more wear and tear on the infrastructure.

Tolling technology is changing rapidly, making it a more attractive way to pay for road improvements.

Open-road tolling -- in which vehicles with a transponder can be charged a toll at full highway speed -- is coming to the Maine Turnpike's New Gloucester tollbooth. Cars not equipped with E-ZPass will still have to stop and pay.

But in other states, open-road tolling is taking the place of tollbooths completely. The Tobin Bridge in Boston and the Florida Turnpike will be toll roads with no tollbooths. Owners of cars that drive through without a transponder will get a bill in the mail after a camera takes a photo of their license plate.

A second toll-related bill is harder to ignore. L.D. 565 -- sponsored by Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn -- would create a task force to study charging tolls on portions of Maine's interstates to fund highway improvements.

People in Lewiston and Auburn can gripe about the toll, but they should also reflect on what they are getting for their money.

The Maine Turnpike is probably the best-built, best-maintained road in the state, and few would want to bypass it by driving the free roads, despite the cost.

More Maine roads need that kind of support. Congress and the Legislature should be taking serious steps toward moving us over to a toll road system, and they should be doing it soon.


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