Turnpike to increase tolls
Set to go into effect in November, the increase will raise an additional $21 million in revenues
The Maine Turnpike Authority is expected to vote on a toll increase in mid August. The change, which passed a preliminary vote by the Authority board on August 2, would go into effect this November. The plan will increase the rate commercial vehicles pay from four times to 4.25 times the passenger rate.
The toll increase also will raise passenger toll rates by 50 cents at most toll plazas and $1 at the York plaza. E-ZPass rates will increase from 6.7 cents to 7.4 cents per mile. The increase is expected to generate $21 million annually in additional revenues. The Authority has stated it needs the additional revenues for maintenance on the toll highway, as well as to pay off its existing debt.
Before settling on the final plan, the Authority considered 10 different scenarios, some that would have raised as much as $28 million annually. The Authority held a series of public meetings in June and July to elicit public comment on the proposed increase – including in Auburn, Gardiner, Portland, Saco, Wells and York. Opposition included concerns about the appearance of equity in the toll hike and the burden the increase will have on communities near the affected toll plazas – in higher travel costs and increased traffic on local roads and already congested state highways due to drivers avoiding tolls. Commercial drivers also voiced their concern about the increased burden of higher tolls on their industry.
The toll increase has had its share of supporters, as well. Maine Governor Paul LePage has said he understands an increase is needed. Still others have noted that benefits come with a well-maintained road– including economic development and increased tourism. According to the Bangor Daily News, Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association, said a poorly maintained road would be a greater concern, because it would threaten the state’s tourism industry. “No one wants to see a toll hike, but there’s probably a greater cost to not raising the funds needed to make investments in the state’s transportation infrastructure. . . If the roads are beat up or pot-holed or unsafe, they [tourists] are just not going to come. And the thing is, they tell everybody about that [bad] experience.”
Concerns about making the toll increase equitable have echoed among drivers and officials along the corridor, including in Portland where Mayor Michael Brennan issued a statement. “Before rushing to a conclusion, a careful economic and traffic analysis is warranted. Portland commuters and businesses should not be asked to carry more of the burden than towns and cities either north or south of us. These rate increases should be fair and equitable.” The Portland Press Herald also published an editorial in support of user fees like tolls, noting that Mainers should “get over their aversion to tolls” if they want to have modern, safe and well-maintained roads: “The Maine Turnpike is the best built and maintained road in the state, thanks to the way it is financed. No one likes to pay tolls, but they are the best way to make sure that the people who use the highway, including out-of-state truckers and tourists, pay the cost.”
Among lowest in nation
The toll increase comes after the agency has taken several steps to lower its operating costs, including staff reductions and changes in procurement practices. The MTA’s most recent budget lowers operating costs by more than 11 percent. The agency also has reduced debt service payments by $13.6 million by reﬁnancing its outstanding debt.
“We’ve anticipated this for years,” Turnpike Executive Director Peter Mills told the Bangor Daily News during the public input process. “We’ve done what we can to mitigate it in the sense that we refinanced a lot of these bonds at much lower interest rates.”