LEWISTON — Maine Turnpike commuters — about 23,000 drivers who signed up to get reduced toll rates for their exit-specific commutes — are in for a shock: Their rates will go up substantially under a current Maine Turnpike Authority plan, with those commuting to or from L-A among the hardest hit.
Instead of pre-paying a flat fee, commuters would receive a bulk discount based on the number of trips they take using an E-ZPass. MTA officials say the shift is more equitable, affordable and easier to administer than the current entry-exit plans. They say the changes will allow more frequent users to receive discounts, and in the process they hope the changes will broaden the use of E-ZPass by Maine drivers.
However, some critics say drivers who currently use the pre-paid commuter plan will face an unfair cost hike under the proposal.
"The commuter pass system has been the only place where the turnpike actually charged the same amount per mile no matter where you were from or where you were actually going to," said state Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston. "The current plan scraps that. . . . I think if they move in that direction, it's the wrong move for all of Maine, and particularly western Maine."
The change will hit drivers going to and from Auburn and points north hard, according to a Sun Journal analysis.
For example, an Auburn resident who drives 27 miles to work in Westbrook five days a week, 48 weeks a year, will spend $722.40 per year in tolls under the new plan. That's a 132 percent increase from the current annual commuter price of $311.60.
A commuter traveling the 29 miles from Wells to Westbrook — 2 miles more than the Auburn commuter — and will pay $420 under the new plan, a 79 percent increase over the current annual cost of $234.
So the Auburn commuter who currently pays $77.60 more than a Wells commuter per year to drive fewer miles on the turnpike will now pay $302.40 more than the Wells driver under the new plan.
In another example, a regular commuter going the 21 miles from Scarborough to Gray currently pays $234 per year under the commuter rates, while a commuter traveling the 22 miles from West Falmouth to Auburn pays $255 annually.
Under the new volume discount plan, traveling 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, the Scarborough commuter will pay $420 annually, a 79 percent increase. The commuter to Auburn will pay $604.80 annually, a 137 percent increase.
The West Falmouth-to-Auburn commuter would pay almost $200 more to commute essentially the same distance.
How much more each commuter will actually pay under the new plan depends on how far and how often he or she travels.
The MTA sees the current commuter program as underutilized, with only two-thirds of the 23,000 participants actually getting substantial benefits from the plan, according to MTA Executive Director Peter Mills. He noted that only 16 percent of all E-ZPass users participate in the current commuter program.
The goal of this change, Mills said, is to spread steep discounts now granted to some commuters around to more people using the E-ZPass. The MTA estimates that the change from the prepaid plan to the volume discount plan will actually cost the authority $470,000 more annually, because the discounts now available to the 16 percent of all E-ZPass holders enrolled in the commuter plan will be available to all E-ZPass holders.
Under the proposed volume discount plan, motorists who make more than 59 turnpike trips in a month will receive a 50 percent discount on every trip taken that month. A 40 percent discount is granted on all trips if more than 39 trips are taken in a month, a 20 percent discount for more than 29 trips, and a 10 percent discount for more than 19 trips.
MTA officials estimate that, based on current traffic patterns, 58 percent of all E-ZPass holders would become eligible for some level of discount.
The commuter pass program was established in 1982. The Legislature required the MTA to offer commuters a minimum 50 percent discount on travel on the turnpike. The law did not specify how often a commuter travels. The Maine Turnpike Authority subsequently developed a quarterly toll charge based on five round trips every week.
In the 30 years since the commuter program was established, cash tolls have been changed on the turnpike seven times, while the commuter plan rates where increased only twice, in 1999 and in 2009, according to the MTA. As a result, today's commuter plan is a better deal than cash tolls for most itineraries involving more than two round trips per week.
The 2009 toll increases to mainline barriers — at York, New Gloucester and Gardiner — were not applied to the commuter plans, which is why commuters who travel long distances and cross those barriers will see much steeper increases in their rates to commute under the new plan.
The law mandating the program was repealed in January in favor of using the volume discount system. Even through the current commuter plan is a good deal for commuters, restrictions make it more difficult to use. Commuter plan users must choose an origin entrance and a destination exit. Use of other entrances or exits outside their commutes is billed at the current E-ZPass rate. And the plan must be prepaid; there are no refunds for altered travel plans resulting from a job change or prolonged time off from work, for example.
That's why only 16 percent of the 140,000 E-ZPass users currently belong to the commuter plan, said Dan Morin, public relations manager for the MTA. "The number (of participants in the commuter program) has gone down because of the restrictions, the pre-payments and the out-of-zone travel," Morin said.
"What we want to do is offer a post-use discount. You don't have to sign up, you don't have to do anything. At the end of the month, our computers will send a bill, and you will receive a discount based on our proposed volume plan," Morin added.
The other advantage commuters could receive is that the volume discount would be applied per account and not per vehicle. Previously, if a family had two or more commuters, each would need to purchase his or her own commuter plan, and each meet the minimum requirements of the plan. Under the proposal, a husband and wife from Auburn both working in Portland would have their trip numbers combined to receive the discount.
The change to a volume-based discount system is part of a larger effort to get more people using E-ZPass, MTA officials said. Even drivers who seldom use the turnpike would likely benefit from using E-ZPass, if only for convenience, they said, because under the proposed plan they would never pay more than the cash price for a toll.
The MTA Board will hold a public workshop on July 19 to discuss the options presented to the board to raise the $26.5 million necessary to meet their budget.
Androscoggin County MTA representative Bob Stone stresses that the proposal is "just a management recommendation at this point."
This proposal and others will be discussed at the July 19 meeting, he said.
"I doubt we will be voting on that day" on a plan, he said.