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Turnpike Authority Votes to Hike Tolls, Tentatively
08/02/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

The Maine Turnpike Authority has tentatively approved a toll hike plan. The MTA has been wrangling over how to raise an extra $26 million annually for maintenance and debt payments. Even after holding public hearings and considering almost a dozen different scenarios, the plan is not set in stone. Approval wasn't unanimous, and there's at least one new option to consider before the final vote on August 16th.

That new proposal tackled the biggest sticking point in the whole toll pike debate: equity. Drivers from the Lewiston-Auburn area in particular have criticized proposals they say force them to pay a disproportionate amount of tolls. So Bob Stone, an MTA board member from Androscoggin County, presented this:

"I think we need to look at the way we're structured here, and number one, I believe we should have a standard E-Z Pass rate per mile for all Maine E-Z Pass users," said Stone.

That way, drivers only pay for the miles they've traveled. Stone also suggested eliminating the minimum fee to get on the turnpike and raising the fee for those motorists who pay cash. Mainers can avoid this by getting an E-Z Pass, but the strategy would maximize out-of-state toll revenue. The idea intrigued many members of the board, but others like John Dority worried there were too many unknowns to proceed.

"This proposal basically puts us back to square one in the ninth inning," Dority said.

The board tabled Stone's scenario so the treasurer could run numbers on how much the fee-per-mile would have to be raised. The board then considered Jim Cloutier's plan that lowers previously suggested toll hikes. Plan "7A" increases the E-Z Pass rate per mile by 10%, and raises the toll one dollar at the York toll booth, and fifty cents at other toll plazas, including the exits in Gray and Wells.

"I'm one of the people who actually thinks that's it's a good thing that Lewiston Auburn and Sabattus pay no tolls to get off the turnpike," said Cloutier.

But Cloutier's plan would also increase the toll rate for commercial trucks from four times the car rate to 4.25. Essentially, a double whammy for trucks when you take into account the other toll increases. That was a deal breaker for Bob Stone and Bruce Van Note.

"The biggest competitive disadvantage we have in Maine is transportation," said Van Note. "It's almost like, location, location, location, and all you can do is not make that situation worse."

The vote was 5-2. But MTA Board Chair Daniel Wathen was quick to remind members that they can still consider new scenarios, including Bob Stone's, before the board takes its final vote on August 16th.

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