Saturday, May 18, 2013
PORTLAND -- The Maine Turnpike Authority is poised to scale back its proposed toll increase of about 17 percent by delaying some of its long-term projects, but members have yet to settle on who should pay the $21.5 million that still must be raised annually to cover long-term debt.
A motorist and her dog wait for change at a toll booth, Thursday in Biddeford. The Maine Turnpike Authority on Thursday postponed voting on a plan to increase tolls on the 109-mile highway. Under the authority's initial proposal, turnpike officials were seeking a 26 percent toll increase.
Members spent several hours Thursday discussing ways to make the toll increase as fair as possible, but fairness is in the eye of the beholder.
Some members want to minimize the toll increase on trucks, while others say the savings should help people who use the turnpike for short trips or rely on E-ZPass to pay their tolls.
"We learned where the board has consensus and where the board has differences," said the authority's executive director, Peter Mills, after the meeting. Those differences may be settled at its next meeting, on Aug. 2.
The meeting was the first opportunity for board members to discuss with each other the different toll increase proposals, Chairman Daniel Wathen said. Choosing will be difficult.
"There will be a lot of criticism no matter what we do," he said just before ending the meeting after five hours.
The authority started the day with some good news. It won't necessarily need to raise as much money as had been thought.
Dropping the toll increase from $26 million to $21.5 million is possible because some projects won't be done as quickly as originally planned. Some, such as a Lewiston interchange project, already have been delayed because of permitting and land acquisition. Others, such as replacing green exit signs, can be put off without consequence.
All that work still would get done, but delaying the borrowing to pay for it means reducing the bond payments needed between 2014 and 2018 when the authority is facing a payment "plateau." Debt payments in those years are highest in part because of new capital projects and also because when the authority borrowed to widen the turnpike in 2000, it delayed starting to pay down the principal until 2008.
The strategy made sense when turnpike traffic, and as a result toll revenue, was increasing 2.5 percent every year; but the recession hit hard in 2008 and traffic dropped way off, the first time it declined in 61 years, and especially truck traffic. Current traffic on the turnpike is only at 2003 levels.
The proposed toll increase is designed to make up that shortfall. Because the authority would be raising less money, it ideally would implement the tolls by November, the staff told the authority members.
Even with the increase, the Maine Turnpike is one of the cheapest toll roads in the country, ranking among the 18 lowest now and still in the bottom 20 percent after the toll increase takes affect, said Paul Godfrey, a consultant for the authority.
The authority staff has floated 10 different toll-increase scenarios, and there can be mixing and matching within each. The authority has held six public hearings to gather input from customers. A summary of those comments can be found on the turnpike authority website at www.maineturnpike.com/Toll-Adjustments-Info.aspx.
The most heavily attended sessions were in the Lewiston-Auburn area, which is heavily dependent on the turnpike, especially for trucking-related businesses.
Authority member Robert Stone, who represents Androscoggin County, including the Lewiston-Auburn area, opposes an increase in the surcharge added on trucks. Trucks already will see their tolls go up, since their rate -- generally four times the amount charged for a car -- would increase as the base toll for cars increases. However, one proposal would increase the rate for trucks to 4.25 times the car rate, which he said is too much.
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