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Lawmaker Proposes Abolishing Maine Turnpike Authority
04/12/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The Legislature's Transportation Committee had a bit of a bumpy ride today as it reviewed a number of bills targeting the Maine Turnpike Authority. The proposals ranged from restructuring the turnpike toll system to abolishing the Authority altogether. Many of the bills were sponsored by legislators from the Lewiston-Auburn area, where angry constituents organized last year in opposition to what they said were unfair toll increases. As A.J. Higgins reports.

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The Maine Turnpike Authority's new increased toll system has been in place for six months. But resentment still simmers among many turnpike users - including those represented by Democratic state Rep. Mike Carey of Lewiston.

Carey is sponsoring a bill to abolish the MTA and transfer its duties to the state Department of Transportation. Carey says the MTA is not held accountable for its toll policies.

"If an entity is going to be giving the power to raise funds - essentially to tax - without response to the politically-elected bodies or to the people themselves, that should only exist if they reach a generally fair result," Carey said.

Last summer, after months of public hearings, the MTA board voted to raise cash tolls from 50 cents to $1 at four toll plazas, and increase by 40 percent the cash toll for using the full length of the 109-mile highway. The plan boosted cash tolls by $1 at the York plaza and 50 cents at toll plazas in Wells, West Gardiner, and New Gloucester, and in the process raised an additional $21 million in annual revenue.

Carey says many people in his district and beyond think the current toll structure is unfair, and seems indifferent to the concerns that have been raised.

The DOT is responsible to the elected members of the people," Carey said. "And if insulation in order to take people's money doesn't get to a generally fair result, I can't justify it being insulated anymore."

Carey has his supporters - among them Charles Morrison, president of the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce. "My plea to you is: Something needs to be done," Morrison said. "The current toll structure is based on a flawed, flawed model."

Morrison says his attempts to get the MTA board to address the situation have gone nowhere.

"Over a period of time, I pointed this out over and over again to the people at the Turnpike Authority," Morrison said. "An answer I always get is the same: 'We're working on it and sometime in the future we're going to fix that.' Well, I don't think the system passes the straight face test."

But there were those at the hearing who say the MTA's critics were painting with too broad a brush. Timothy Doyle of the Maine Motor Transport Association says the MTA has undergone an amazing transformation under the leadership of Executive Director Peter Mills.

"Mr. Mills has gone out of his way to be accessible and transparent, even providing his cell phone number to all of our members," Doyle said. "My guess is some of our members probably called him to personally express their opinions regarding the recent toll decisions."

Following the hearing on the MTA bills, long-time Republican Transportation Committee member Sen. Ron Collins of Wells said he believes that much of the discontent over tolls comes from users who pay in cash, rather than through the electronic EZ Pass system that the turnpike is trying to promote.

"Granted, there is a small segment of the population that still wants to pay cash, but for the most part, it's growing in popularity - number one, for its convenience, and because you do get discounts in some parts of the road," Collins said.

The committee is scheduled to work the bill further on April 24.


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