May 19, 2013

Maine Turnpike toll hike pays off

Six months in, revenue has increased by 16 percent even though traffic has dropped by 4 percent.

By Eric Russell
Staff Writer

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The Maine Turnpike was busy with traffic Thursday near Exit 44 in South Portland. An analysis of turnpike traffic by toll interchange suggests that motorists have taken steps to avoid some of the plazas that have had increases in their fares during the last six months.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The Maine Turnpike Authority operates entirely on tolls and other revenue such as concessions. It receives no taxpayer money but does contribute 5 percent of its revenue to the Maine Department of Transportation.

For many years, ridership on the turnpike increased steadily by an average of 2.5 percent to 3 percent every year. Revenue increased at a similar rate.

That changed in 2008 when the economy soured and gas prices soared. Ridership and revenue flattened, then started to decline. Expenses, however, kept escalating.

The turnpike's annual operating budget, including its debt, is now about $130 million. Toll revenue before the toll increase was slightly more than $100 million.

Last June, the authority announced that it was looking at options for increasing tolls, which it needs to pay operating expenses that include ongoing repairs, regular maintenance and historical debt. Much of the debt is associated with a $135 million widening project more than a decade ago.

After a series of public hearings and some changes to the initial plan, the authority's board voted last August to approve toll increases that it projected would generate an additional $21.4 million in revenue each year.

The toll increases, the 12th in the turnpike's 66-year history and the first since 2009, took effect on Nov. 1, 2012.

Cash tolls increased from $2 to $3 in York, from $1.75 to $2.25 at the New Gloucester plaza, from $1.25 to $1.75 at the West Gardiner plaza and from $1 to $1.50 at the northbound exit in Wells and the southbound exit in Gray.

In addition to the toll increases, the turnpike did away with its popular commuter program. To offset the potential impact and to steer more motorists toward the E-ZPass program, the authority limited the rate increase for E-ZPass users to 1 cent per mile and instituted a discount for the most frequent users.

Motorists who make between 30 and 39 trips per month get a discount of 25 percent and those who make more than 40 trips in a month get a 50 percent discount.

The turnpike authority also lowered from $25 to $10 the cost of an E-ZPass transponder that tracks mileage. It also began allowing consumers to buy E-ZPass memberships online.

The goal, Mills said, was to make it easier for Maine residents to become E-ZPass users and be able to offer volume discounts, if possible.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, whose constituents were hit hardest by a $1 toll increase in York and a 50-cent increase in Wells, said the outrage over the hikes has calmed down.

"I still think you have a lot of people who are disenchanted, though, because the tolls don't equate to the number of miles you travel," she said. "There is no logic. That irritates people."

Rep. Wayne Parry of Arundel, the lead Republican on the Legislature's Transportation Committee, agreed that the issue of equity is still a problem for many turnpike users.

"I think people who drive 25 miles should be charged the same no matter where those 25 miles are," he said.

Many users like Thibeault and DeWitt, who feared that they would have to pay significantly more, have discovered that the increases have been negligible. Others who have taken advantage of the volume discount now pay less.

Brian Parke, president of the Maine Motor Transport Association, which represents commercial truckers, said his members are always wary of anything that cuts into their bottom line, whether it's toll increases or a spike in gas prices.

"I think we have a lot of people who aren't exactly happy about paying more, but they recognize that it's still the safest and most convenient route in many cases," he said.

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