A hearing Wednesday on a proposal to increase tolls on the Maine Turnpike this fall to compensate for revenue losses tied to the pandemic drew a sparse crowd, both digitally and at the Ramada Inn in Saco.

Only two people attended in person, and 11 tuned in virtually. The final public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston.

The Maine Turnpike Authority Board is expected to ratify the toll increases at its Sept. 2 meeting, but still could make changes, such as modifying the proposed increase for EZ-Pass users, according to MTA spokesperson Erin Courtney. She said the board has already agreed that it needs to raise about $18 million in additional annual revenue to continue highway projects.  If the board approves the increases in September, they would go into effect Nov. 1.

The authority says the toll increase is needed following a $60 million revenue shortfall it blames on last year’s pandemic-related traffic slump.

In 2019, motorists paid almost $140 million in tolls on the turnpike. The next year, traffic decreased drastically as Maine enacted emergency pandemic measures that curtailed tourism businesses and included travel restrictions. Highway travel remained low for most of 2020, and the turnpike collected $115 million in tolls – $60 million less than projected.

The proposal includes increasing the cash rate drivers pay at the York toll plaza from $3 to $4. It also calls for increasing the E-ZPass per mile charge from 7.7 cents to 8 cents, and reducing volume discounts for drivers who make 30 or more trips per month on the turnpike.

Traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels, but a toll increase is needed to keep the agency’s construction plan on track, authority Director Peter Mills said in a news release last month.

“(The) loss of revenue during the pandemic, combined with new bonding constraints, make it infeasible to complete future capital plans without raising tolls or adjusting discounts,” Mills said.

The authority board says it is reluctant to raise tolls while the economy is still recovering, but it is one of a few highway authorities in the nation that has not raised tolls since Nov. 1, 2012, the board said in a post to the authority’s website. The MTA receives all its revenue through tolls paid by turnpike drivers – it does not receive any federal funds or state gas tax revenue. After weighing their options, the MTA board determined that to defer important projects would cause greater harm than would increasing tolls.

During 2020, the authority invested $106 million in capital projects, taking advantage of reduced traffic to complete highway improvement projects.

Peter Hornby, who lives in Ocean Park and was the only person to comment during the hearing, said he is concerned about the impact of raising tolls on travelers who are already struggling to make ends meet. On the other hand, Hornby said, he supports the MTA making improvements to the highway, which he described as being “world-class.”

“The toll increase will go through. I’m not surprised, but I am saddened,” Hornby said.

The public comment period will officially end Aug. 20. Anyone who wishes to make a comment about the toll increases can do so at maineturnpike.com/2021tolls.

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