Saturday, May 18, 2013
YORK -- Motorists who travel through the Maine Turnpike toll plaza in York would pay $3 instead of $2 under a proposal favored by staff at the turnpike authority.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan Vehicles go through the Mile 101 toll plaza on the Maine Turnpike (Interstate 95) on Friday in West Gardiner.
Staff photo by Joe Phelan
That increase is part of a series of toll increases officials say is needed to fill a revenue gap of about $26 million and help pay off old debt associated with a massive widening project last decade.
Even turnpike director Peter Mills agreed that the York toll increase is steep, but he said more tourists come through York than any other spot on the turnpike's 106 miles. They should be targeted instead of Mainers, he said.
Local residents, however, fear they will suffer.
"I know there is a lot of money that comes through here and a lot is from away, but we do have people from York and Wells who have to use that turnpike," said Mary Andrews, a York selectwoman. "It's grossly unfair to charge us $3 to go six or seven miles."
Andrews was among more than 75 people who turned out Monday night for the latest public hearing hosted by the Maine Turnpike Authority to discuss the proposed toll increases.
Turnpike officials already heard plenty of criticism during a trio of meetings last month in Auburn, Portland and Saco, and the sentiment was the same in York. One final meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Wells High School.
So far, the biggest criticism has been equity. No matter where residents live, they all are concerned that they will be forced to pay an unfair share.
York County residents pointed out that they have to pay both getting on and getting off the turnpike in York. At $2, it's already the highest of the six "barrier" tolls and accounts for 38 percent of all turnpike revenue.
"You'll never hear me say it's fair," Mills said.
Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, said she just wants to know how the turnpike arrived at current fares. No one seems to know, she said.
Dave Emery agreed and rattled off some of the current tolls for certain stretches. "There is just no logic to it," he said.
The turnpike authority has at least 10 toll-increase options on the table. The board of directors is expected to make a decision soon, maybe as soon as its July 19 meeting. The option preferred by turnpike authority officials would raise the toll from $2 to $3 at York, from $1.75 to $2.50 at New Gloucester, from $1.25 to $2 at West Gardiner, and from $1 to $1.50 at the Wells northbound and Gray southbound tollbooths.
For E-ZPass users, the rate would increase by an average of 1.3 cents per mile. Mills has said the E-ZPass is the best way to ensure equity, but not everyone wants to join.
Since he's taken over the agency, Mills has cut the budget by about 10 percent and refinanced bonds to save future money. Last month, he also announced the elimination of about two dozen positions.
"Increasing tolls is probably the meanest thing we can do ... but we've done everything we can to mitigate this," Mills said.
Bob Stone, a turnpike authority board member from Auburn, told Lewiston's Sun Journal newspaper recently that he's been working on an alternative option. He wants to increase tolls at West Gardiner and Falmouth to $2 and also set the toll in South Portland near the Maine Mall at $2.
It's not clear whether that option has the support of other board members.