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Maine E-ZPass Holders Outraged by Looming Commuter Fee Hikes
10/02/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

A little over a month ago, the Maine Turnpike Authority approved a toll hike that's expected to bring in an extra $20 million a year. Part of the plan includes scrapping the old E-ZPass commuter discount program and replacing it with a new one that MTA officials say is more equitable. But some E-ZPass users are outraged at a change they say will raise their commuting costs by as much as 200 percent. The MTA called a public hearing today to consider if and how it might ease the blow for those communters before the plan goes into effect Nov. 1.

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Maine E-ZPass Holders Outraged by Looming Commuter Listen
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If you had to pick one word to describe today's hearing, angry comes to mind. Drivers who use the current E-ZPass commuter program described the proposed change with words like "ridiculous," "obnoxious," "insulting."

And this: "I think your timing is absolutely horrendous." That's Amber St. Peter of Springvale. She commutes to South Portland for work and says she currently pays $20 a month to use the turnpike with her E-ZPass commuter discount. Under the new program, St. Peter says she'll pay double that.

"I have no oil in my tank at home. Gas is $4 per gallon," she said. "With this new change effective November 1st, you're asking me to choose between food, oil, gas and tolls to get to work. I cannot afford this increase in tolls. I'm a single woman with a mortgage. I need to go to work."

Many commuters said they'd be willing to pay a modest increase in tolls, but can't afford the higher rates they'll have to pay under the new E-ZPass discount program. John Dennett commutes from Wells to Portland. He says he currently pays $58.50 per quarter in the E-ZPass commuter plan. But starting November 1st, that will more than double to over $140.00 per quarter.

"Twenty percent of my income goes to my ex-wife to support my daughter. Fifty percent of my income goes to my landlord to keep a roof over my head. Sixty percent of my income goes into my gas tank. As you know, that's over 100 percent," he said. "I'm draining savings to keep an $11-an-hour job here in Portland. The economy stinks. I have a masters in accounting. I'm a night auditor at eleven bucks an hour."

The way the E-ZPass commuter program works right now, drivers choose a plan based on which turnpike exits they use and pay a flat rate per quarter. The Turnpike Authority says that model is 30 years old, and over the years, most toll increases didn't apply to commuters, so their discounts swelled to 50 to 80 percent.

Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills says the new plan is more equitable because it applies to all E-ZPass accounts, based on the volume of turnpike trips.

"We have thousands of people who will actually be getting a discount that they have not been getting before. And these are people who deserve the discount," Mills says. "These are people who are hard working, who are commuters, who just don't happened to have signed up for a program where they have to pay in advance."

Currently, there are approximately 20,000 E-ZPass commuter accounts. According to the Turnpike Authority, more than 11,000 of those will see an increase in E-ZPass costs with the new program. But Mills says only a small portion of that - about 300 accounts - would see significant increases of 200 percent.

All the more reason, says Cara Rousselle, who drives from Biddeford to Portland, to accommodate those commuters. "If it's such a small number, grandfather us in. Let us keep our commuter plan that allows me to go to work at a reasonable rate," Rousselle said.

Mills says it's too cumbersome to have two discount models. He suggested instead another commuter scenario that would allow the discount to kick in at a lower trip volume. But there's a catch: That plan would eliminate $1 million in revenue per year, and MTA officials aren't sure the agency can afford that, due to pending bond debts.

"The capital needs of a very old road is what's at stake here," Mills says. "And we need to have a toll increase now in order to pay off those bonds and meet the capital requirements of repairing the whole north section of the road, which was built in 1955."

Many commuters said that they shouldn't be punished for previous mismanagement of MTA funds, referencing previous director Paul Violette who embezzled nearly half a million dollars. But Mills says all that money has been paid back.

He says no one at the Turnpike Authority is happy about the increases, but says there's no choice. That's one thing both sides seem to agree on. The board will decide whether to modify the new E-ZPass discount program at its next meeting Oct. 18.

Photo by Patty Wight.

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