Wednesday, June 19, 2013
The Maine Turnpike Authority was never a model of good government in the past, but its recent handling of a toll increase is making it one.
Turnpike officials say the approved rate increases will bring in an additional $21.1 million in annual toll revenue.
File photo/The Associated Press
The board worked hard to cut costs before asking motorists to pay more, and took fact-finding seriously, redesigning its toll scheme to treat all of its users fairly. Coming from an agency that in the past spent wastefully and enabled corrupt leadership, this is really an impressive turnaround.
It's so impressive, it raises the question about why more of Maine's roads are not supported by tolls.
The days when the gas tax could cover all our transportation needs is long gone. For purely political reasons, gas taxes have not kept up with inflation, or the technology that enables drivers to use less gas. If electric cars continue to grow in popularity, these revenues will shrink even more.
The only other alternative is bonding, which means the bills are eventually paid by all taxpayers, whether or not they use the roads. This makes sense for bridges and other durable infrastructure investments, which last a long time and have general benefits for the whole state such as enabling the transfer of goods or promoting tourism. However, bonding seems like an unfair way to pay for regular maintenance, and it leaves out-of-state travelers largely off the hook.
Maine's roads away from the turnpike are in terrible shape. Car repairs and lost business opportunities alone are much more expensive than any toll, and that's before you consider the horrendous costs of unsafe roads.
No one wants to pay more, but paying more or using less are the only choices. Tolling technology is advancing, and we are not far from a time when transponders like E-ZPass and invisible sensors could be used to collect fees for road usage without ever making a driver stop at a tollbooth. Drivers would be charged by the mile for the roads they use, and people who drive less or not at all would be able to limit their costs.
Current federal law prohibits the use of tolls on highways like Interstate 95, which was built with federal money, but there are other state roads that could and should be tolled.
There have always been calls to close down the turnpike's tollbooths and make the highway just another Maine road. (The latest comes in today's newspaper, on Page E1, from columnist Dan Demeritt.) But maybe it's time to go in the opposite direction and make more Maine roads like the turnpike. Lawmakers should take notice.