October 19, 2012

Some Maine Turnpike users to get toll-hike break

Reacting to complaints, officials raise the discount for commuters from 20 percent to 50 percent for eight months.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Turnpike Authority is granting a reprieve to commuter-plan customers who were to be hit especially hard by toll increases set to take effect next month.

TOLLS

COMPARATIVE RATES as of Nov. 1 for the trip between Exit 45, at the Maine Mall in South Portland, and points south of the York toll plaza, for someone making the round trip five times a week, or 20 times a month:

A CASH CUSTOMER pays $7 for the trip: $3 northbound and $4 southbound.

AN E-ZPASS customer will pay $2.90 one way, $5.80 round trip.

A 50 PERCENT DISCOUNT off the standard E-ZPass rate, which would be earned if the driver makes 20 round trips a month starting Nov. 1, would result in a cost of $58 per month instead of $116.

WITH THE 20 PERCENT DISCOUNT effective after July 1, that person would pay $92.80 for 20 round trips instead of $116.

THE DISCOUNT PLAN due to take effect in July offers discounts of 30 percent for 50 to 59 one-way trips, 40 percent for 60 to 69 trips and 50 percent for 70 or more trips.

A PERSON with the current commuter plan pays $127.50 per quarter, or about $42 per month for unlimited travel between the two points.

SOURCE: Maine Turnpike Authority

Reacting to intense opposition from some heavy turnpike users, the turnpike authority plans to give bigger toll discounts for commuters and other heavy users of E-ZPass, at least for the next eight months.

Starting Nov. 1, motorists who drive more than 40 one-way trips on the turnpike in a month will get the maximum 50 percent discount off the new E-ZPass rate of 7.7 cents per mile, the turnpike's board decided Thursday. Those driving from 30-39 trips per month will get a 25 percent discount.

The earlier increase, approved in August, is now scheduled to take effect in July. Under that plan, motorists making more than 40 trips on the turnpike in a month will get a 20 percent discount and those making 30-39 trips a 10 percent discount.

During the eight-month reprieve, an E-ZPass user commuting five days a week between Exit 45 in South Portland and points south of the York toll plaza will save $2.90 a day, paying $58 a month instead of $92.80 per month, the rate to be charged after the discount drops to 20 percent July 1.

The increased discount is expected to cost the turnpike about $600,000 over eight months, but should not have a significant impact on the turnpike's long-term financial stability, said Daniel Morin, spokesman for the authority.

Last summer, the authority adopted a plan to increase tolls as a way to pay for increasing bond payments that are coming due in the next several years, as well as ongoing bridge and highway maintenance. The current toll increase is intended to address turnpike revenue needs for the next 30 years.

Some motorists railed against the proposed increase in toll rates, which would have tripled the cost for some by replacing the long-standing commuter discount plan, which allowed for unlimited travel for a set quarterly fee.

Daniel Hett, a North Berwick resident who is the administrator of a medical practice in Lewiston, said his turnpike expenses of about $30 per month would triple under the plan adopted in the summer. He said the accelerated discount is an improvement.

"I'm not impressed because I have to pay double, but it's better than paying triple," he said. "I run a medical office. I can't imagine levying those kinds of increases on anybody, especially in this economy."

About 23,000 drivers participate in the 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 the volume-based discount system that applies to all E-ZPass users and is designed more like a traditional user fee.

The magnitude of the increase to customers using the commuter plan has hit harder because those users have seen only one or two increases, depending on their route, in the past 30 years, compared with seven increases for cash and standard E-ZPass customers, Morin said.

"Rather than those customers paying 50 percent of the cash rate, some are paying 60 to 70 percent lower than the E-ZPass rate," Morin said.

The commuter plans are popular not only because of the cost of driving to and from work on the turnpike, but because they allow unlimited travel within those two designated points, making it easier for some motorists to visit the Maine Mall or other service centers without paying for each trip.

(Continued on page 2)

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