Lewiston-Auburn seeks equity on turnpike tolls

E-ZPass rates per mile (in cents) under the MTA management's recommendation

To see what a driver would pay per mile, follow the starting exit on the right to the column of the departing exit.

Source: Maine Turnpike Authority Toll Adjustment InfoSuggested E-ZPass rates chart

LEWISTON — Bob Stone has been crunching some numbers and when it comes to who pays what for tolls on the Maine Turnpike, he has some ideas.

Why does MTA need to raise the tolls?

Maine Turnpike Authority officials built their revenue projections based on the assumption that traffic would always increase. And for the first 61 years of the turnpike, that was true.

Then, traffic declined 2.76 percent in 2008.

It declined again in 2009, by 2.47 percent.

Traffic levels today are what they were at the beginning of the last decade, said Dan Morin, spokesman for the MTA. "We are currently below our 2003 levels and do not expect to reach our 2007 highs until 2015," he said.

In 2009, the last time the MTA adjusted tolls, it revised revenue predictions based on post-recession traffic levels. The MTA now estimates that its 2008 predictions were $378 million under anticipated revenue through 2025.

"It's a compounding phenomenon," said MTA Executive Director Peter Mills. "We're $27 million down per year from what we thought we were going to be." 

Mills said a $25 million toll increase "around this year" was always part of its 2008 revenue plan. He does not see another toll increase for the foreseeable future in the next 30 years, as long as revenue projections stay on target.

"We need the $25 million just to keep up with revenue projections," he said. The authority also has been working to curtail expenses by refinancing bonds and cutting back.

—Pattie Reaves

The first being that Lewiston-Auburn-area travelers and businesses should be spared another toll hike.  

Stone, a member of the Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors, will officially present what he believes is a fairer proposal later this month.

And he has another idea that he says would reduce the number of northbound travelers who divert off the turnpike — away from Lewiston-Auburn — and onto toll-free Interstate 295.

"I'm just going to lay it out and say, 'Look, the Lewiston-Auburn area does not enjoy the ability to jump in a car and drive to Augusta toll-free,'" Stone said during a meeting with the Sun Journal last week.

Stone, 64, of Auburn, was confirmed by the state Senate in September to represent Androscoggin County on the MTA board.

The longtime banker is fresh off a series of public meetings by the authority to gather feedback on proposed toll increases.

The proposal favored by MTA staff, as presented at public meetings in Auburn, Portland and Saco in June, would bump the turnpike's barrier tolls at New Gloucester from $1.75 to $2.50; at West Gardiner from $1.25 to $2; and at York from $2 to $3. 

The toll increases are needed to raise an additional $26.5 million a year to meet the authority's debt payments in the years ahead.

Stone said some of that new revenue should come from increases on the tolls paid by those entering or leaving the turnpike at I-295.

Three turnpike exits — one just north of West Gardiner, one at the I-95-to-I-295 spur in Falmouth and one in Portland — currently allow drivers to access the toll-free I-295 after paying a $1 toll to leave the turnpike. Drivers on I-295 must also pay a $1 toll at those three locations to get on the turnpike. Stone said his proposal would increase the entrance and exit tolls at West Gardiner and Falmouth to $2.

"It's 53 miles that there is no toll involved (on I-295) to any great extent, and we cannot be expected to bear a 75-cent increase (at New Gloucester) when there is obvious diversion going on (onto I-295)," Stone said. "The community has made its views very clear that we don't mind paying our fair share, but our fair share is much less than 75 cents more, and there's an opportunity to toll both ends of 295 and generate some income, which would reduce the cost to Lewiston-Auburn residents."

Stone also advocates for a $2 toll at exit 45, the Maine Mall exit, "if it's possible," he said. There is a $1 entrance and exit toll currently on exit 44, which connects I-95 to I-295, but many motorists use exit 45 to connect to I-295 because it does not have an exit toll. His plan would raise the toll for the free exit.

"E-ZPass is absolutely critical in my proposal," Stone said, because, $2 each way is an "exorbinant" price to commute between Scarborough and Portland. If that commuter is on E-ZPass, his or her toll would be pro-rated per mile and "substationally cheaper," he said.

Stone's plan, which he said is a result of listening to those who attended the public meetings, was not one of the 10 options offered by MTA officials.

How much support he will have from the other six voting members of the MTA board remains to be seen. Stone said that when he pitched his proposal via email this week, it was met with a "lukewarm reception."

Board members include representatives from York, Cumberland and Kennebec counties, as well as a nonvoting member from the Maine Department of Transportation.

"I'm only one vote on a seven-member board," Stone said. But like many in the community, he said he felt the proposal to hike tolls by another 75 cents at New Gloucester was unfair, especially because the turnpike serves as the main highway for Lewiston-Auburn travelers and commerce.

Stone will make his proposal during the MTA's board meeting Wednesday, July 18, at the agency's headquarters in Portland.

The amount of revenue his proposal would generate is still being calculated, he said, and whether it's enough to offset the proposed toll increase at New Gloucester remains to be seen. 

"But one of my main areas of concerns is the 295 freebie from Scarborough to Gardiner," Stone said.

During a hearing on the proposed toll hikes in Auburn on June 19, more than 150 people showed up, many to complain about the tolls — proposed and in the past.

Chip Morrison, president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, said at the hearing, "The problem is that the proposal just adds an across-the-board increase onto an existing structure that's unfair as it is." 

This week, Morrison said Stone's suggestion takes a step toward equity for Lewiston-Auburn, but added that equalizing the price all travelers pay per mile on the turnpike is ultimately the best way to go.

Morrison said he believes the MTA staff and board is truly attempting to find a solution that works and is fair, and he's hopeful of that.

By pushing more people to electronic tolling — using the E-ZPass system — turnpike overhead costs will decrease and in the end that will be the best way to create equity in the system, Morrison said.

"Electronics can help us do that, and we can do that, but it's a matter of whether the MTA board has the will to do that," Morrison said. "But you can make (using) cash so onerous both in cost and delays that it will push everybody to electronics, and that's what ultimately has to be done." 

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said that until the system is geared so everyone pays the same per-mile cost, it will remain inequitable. As to whether the current system is fair, Macdonald said that's in the eye of the beholder.

"What's fair with this system?" he said. "It all depends on where you get on."

Macdonald said a flat rate per mile for all travelers would be his offer.

"Fair to me is you open the turnpike up and you pay for the miles you use," he said. "You pay for what you use and everybody pays the same rate. That's what I would do. I think the best way is to charge them by the mile."

Under the current and proposed plans, drivers using an E-ZPass pay pro-rated tolls for miles driven instead of cash tolls. The new proposal raises E-ZPass tolls to an eight-cents per mile average rate, and never more than a cash toll.

A Sun Journal analysis showed that under MTA management's proposal, north-bound travelers from the exits directly north of the mainline barrier in York or the south-bound travelers from exits directly south of the mainline barrier in New Gloucester can travel at rates as cheap as 3 and 4 cents per mile because the cash rate is much lower.

Peter Mills, MTA executive director, said the cure for inequities in the cash system on the turnpike is to build new cash toll plazas, but at $2.5 to $3 million a pop, it's not worth it, he said. After paying to build new toll plazas, they would cost hundreds of thousands more per year to man them, and "the world is just not headed in that direction," he said.

Most turnpikes are moving more toward electronic toll collection, Mills said. The ideal scenario for replacing toll collectors with electronic transponders is on exits used mostly by in-state traffic for short commutes; collecting tolls from out-of-state motorists who may not have transponders or noncompatible transponders is more problematic, he said.

"We're getting cooperation with other states but we aren't there yet," Mills said.

In order to have a system that's fair for everyone, "you have to build a barrier in the Scarborough area," said state Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston. "If you don't want to do that, you have to go back and put a barrier up at every exit. If that's too inefficient, great. So go do something that's more efficient."

Macdonald said city officials in Lewiston and Auburn had set a meeting for Monday to discuss the toll hikes and some of the proposed alternatives, including Stone's. The mayors and city administrators are meeting together on Monday to discussing the topic further before the July 18 MTA board meeting, Macdonald said.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said that the internal policy at the turnpike, which limits the E-ZPass rate to the cash rate, needs to be reviewed. Increasing the northbound cash rate at Wells and increasing the minimum toll in Portland would also help.

"There are some minor tweaks even within [MTA mangement's plan] that could mitigate the need for the hike in New Gloucester," LaBonte said. 

LaBonte said he hopes that the MTA does not hurry to make a decision on July 19 on how to proceed with the toll adjustments before communities have had a chance to discuss the impact of these changes or offer alternatives.

The MTA board and its staff, which plan to hold two more public meetings on the toll hikes, seem to be listening to the public, Morrison and Macdonald said.

Morrison said Stone's proposal is a clear reflection of that response.

"This is a good thing he's suggesting; it's the right thing," Morrison said. "I clearly think they got the message. They need to have a serious discussion about changing those tolls and that's what (Stone) is trying to do and it's a good thing."

Whether Stone will prevail is difficult to predict, Morrison said.

"But in the end, you've got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I did the right thing.'" Morrison said. "This is the right thing."

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Mike Lachance's picture

Listen to Macdonald; He gets it.

"Fair to me is you open the turnpike up and you pay for the miles you use," he said. "You pay for what you use and everybody pays the same rate. That's what I would do. I think the best way is to charge them by the mile."

Mayor Macdonald has it figured out. Fair is fair. flat rate per mile is the only way to solve this problem. Anything else is NOT "fair".

And isnt it ironic... since the MTA tolls have been jacked up, up and up, revenues and traffic has gone down down and down. Duh.

Personally, after about 2004 i've taken every opportunity to NOT use the pike whenever possible.

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

Mike: Your statement, "since

Mike: Your statement, "since the MTA tolls have been jacked up, up and up, revenues and traffic has gone down down and down" is not accurate. Each and every time the tolls have been raised revenue has gone up and only once did actual traffic decline the year of a toll increase in the Turnpike's 65 year history. Although traffic numbers declined in 2009 the Turnpike realized close to $19 million more revenue. The key here is traffic and revenue have declined from traffic and revenue projection levels used to calculate future annual operating, capital and bond repayment budgets.

The closest way to realize an equitable rate per mile toll payment under the current physical structure of the Turnpike is by becoming an E-ZPass customer. Under the proposed toll plan Auburn E-ZPass users would never pay more than 6.7 cents a mile for any Turnpike trip. Lewiston users would never pay more than 5.5 cents for any trip.

LAIRD PRUIKSMA's picture

alternate cash EZPass methods?

Dan Morin writes: "The closest way to realize an equitable rate per mile toll payment under the current physical structure of the Turnpike is by becoming an E-ZPass customer."

Has the MTA investigated how many potential customers (if any) avoid EZPass because of the inconvenience of maintaining an EZPass balance without a checking or credit card account? Could the MTA partner with major retailers who already handle utility payments at their service desks to allow cash deposits to an EZPass account?

Paying in cash at MTA headquarters in Portland during business hours may be an obstacle to using an EZPass, but everyone can get to Walmart, Hannaford, or Shaws regularly.

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

Laird: Thank you very much.

Laird: Thank you very much. Mr. Mills is having staff review, and is anxious to promote E-ZPass and offer options to expand usage. I will certainly pass along your 'utility payment' idea. Sounds like a good one on its face. Thanks again.

Michael Hobbs's picture

I am curious if you have any

I am curious if you have any way of showing that only time that traffic decreased during a toll hike was in 2009? Less traffic on the turnpike means less money, generally, but the only reason that the turnpike realized $19 million was because of the hike in tolls. Do you honestly believe that another steep hike (yes, $0.75-$1 is a steep cost to those already paying too much) will not cause further decline of traffic on the turnpike? The reasons why you may continue to see a profit is because of those coming from out-of-state who rely mostly on the interstate to go north, but what about Mainers? Seems like the MTA (in this case you) could care less for the average Mainer. With gas prices nearing almost double that of what it was in 2009, you honestly think the average Mainer just trying to commute to work can afford to pay $2.50 (propsed New Gloucester toll) -$3 (proposed York toll) just for a one way trip? You can preach on about the E-Z Pass, but either way the people of Maine will still be getting the shaft because we will still be paying for a toll hike. If you ask the average Mainer, I am sure they'd tell you to dissolve the MTA merge it with the MDOT and only keep those that work the toll booths. Just getting rid of the management for the MTA alone is bound to save a couple million dollars. Keep the York toll the current cost, get rid of the New Gloucester toll booth and place dollar toll booths (as they are between York and New Gloucester) for the rest of the way up until the Augusta toll booth. If need be they could boost the gas tax, which the MTA seems to be using as a scare tactic. If they used what I previously stated the gas tax wouldn't need to be as high as if it were a free highway. At least after all this the people would actually have a say in toll increases rather then have to choke down another increase without being able to do anything about it. Sorry, but I highly doubt even with these little meetings the MTA had will change from the current proposed increases. Interesting to note that the place that is going to feel the most burden, is also the one that had the most people show up for (150 people show up and another couple hundred watched via video feed for the Auburn meeting).

Looking forward to hearing what the MTA can come up with for a reply. Thanks :)

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

Michael: Traffic increased on

Michael: Traffic increased on average by 3% every year since the Turnpike opened in 1947 until 2008 when the recession hit. We have traffic and revenue numbers back to the beginning of the Turnpike should you be interested (info@maineturnpike.com). We've had 12 toll increases and traffic along with revenue increased after 11 of those 12 adjustments.Traffic projections also do not show a decline in future traffic under the current proposal.

Increased toll revenue is need to operate and maintain the highway whether done by the Maine Turnpike Authority or MaineDOT. Merging to two is decades old argument that was decided back in 1982 and beyond the purview of the Turnpike. Only the state legislature can make that happen, and subsequently fund its upkeep. I suggest you contact your state senator or representative should you prefer that route. I too would be interested in what cost savings would be realized under such an arrangement.

As for your suggestion on changes to the physical structure of the toll system, the cost of construction for toll booths at the Auburn, Lewiston and Sabattus interchanges would alone EACH exceed the annual costs of management. It currently costs just over $1 million to staff 5 cash toll lanes ($212,000 per lane) annually. Office administration salaries and benefits (i.e., management) cost $2.5 million in 2011. Total wages and benefits for fare collections in 2011 was $12.9 million. Eliminating management also assumes the costs of current operations and adminstrative duties would be reduced under MaineDOT.

Peter Mills and the Board have indicated that all comments, suggestions and concerns will be treated with equal respect and through consideration. The volume of attendance and/or comments at public meetings certainly do not automatically place the beliefs, concerns and suggestions above any other, nor necessarily make them more accurate on their face. Board members and Mr Mills consistently look for ways to streamline and improve Turnpike operations, but must comply with our statutory obligations and bond repayment contracts by formulating an effective toll structure to preserve our credit strength in the coming years and to fully fund necessary maintenance and safety projects.

Although not directly pointed at you Michael, I feel it's important to add that Mr. Mills and the current Board have given the public no reason to be skeptical of their motives by holding public meetings or to have their integrity or goals questioned throughout this process. Unfortunately many are indeed doing that.

Michael Hobbs's picture

My apologizes, the average

My apologizes, the average has risen over a dollar from 2009-2012. Although the average cost of fuel was around $1.78 in Jan. 09'.

http://cnsnews.com/news/article/gas-when-bush-left-office-178-gas-today-...

Mike Lachance's picture

Well... youre talking to

Well... youre talking to "Joe Real World" .... (I'm not the only Joe, either. With every increase in tolls, my usage has decreased substantially. And while my statement might only be incorrect in one aspect (revenues), it appears correct in the other aspects. (toll increase and traffic decrease. Whats more, if youre making more $$ on less people, Id say theres your problem right there. MTA should be figuring out why there are not MORE people.... Lower the tolls and the people with come back.

Macdonald's idea is the only "equitable" option. Everything else is just a matter of which geographic block do you want to exploit. It's time to QUIT the toll-booth shell game and get real. Pay-per-mile for everyone.

(No expectations that common sense will prevail on this one)

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

Just to clarify Mike, tolls

Just to clarify Mike, tolls have been increased 12 times since 1947 and in all but one of those times traffic AND revenue have increased the year of the increase and in subsequent years.

There are many moving parts when calculating tolls and forecasting usage along with potential diversion from increased tolls. The claim that lower tolls would bring in more traffic may occur to some degree but sometimes that may not increase revenue to a needed level. For example, if tolls were lowered by 20% there would not be a corresponding increase in traffic. There may be a 5% increase. Revenue would then not meet the statutory and bonding needs of the Turnpike. Our statistics show some diversion, in some areas, after a toll increase, however, after a few months traffic retruns to pre-toll increase levels. There are indeed a limited amount of drivers such as yourself who change drivings habits but the amount does not adversely affect our projections. Motorists choose to use the Turnpike for its convenience, quality and safety.

Mike Lachance's picture

Im not really sure I

Im not really sure I understand this... youre saying you know how many people decide not to take the pike? How do you calculate this? Brain scans via drones monitoring all motorists throughout central and southern Maine?

Not buying that one. You have no way of knowing who is deciding to drive via non-TP routes and why. What you DO have is a measurement of motorists entering and exiting. Thats it. If they never get on you have no idea of where, why, or when. The potential, therefore of completely missing that statistical lost revenue from these motorists is very real.

You can count what you have but not what you dont know youve been missing.

Pay-per-mile and get it over with!

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

We can certainly track usage

We can certainly track usage and driving patterns/habits of all individual E-ZPass accounts, which is over 62% of Turnpike traffic (new users, old users, those who drop off, those who increase). Electronic toll collection has continued to increase in recent years which has greatly increased our ability to calculate trip specific and user specific data in projecting and reviewing usage.

After the 2009 toll increase, the number of cars using cash (we also can track that) dropped by around 5% for only 2 months after the increase but only at the side tolls and York. After two months the number of cars entering the Turnpike at those locations returned to pre-toll increase levels and began to increase--so yes, we know how many people take the Pike. Historical data show even when some stop using the Turnpike, they either shortly return, or new users take their place.

LAIRD PRUIKSMA's picture

lmgtfy

Mike Lachance writes: "Im not really sure I understand this... youre saying you know how many people decide not to take the pike? How do you calculate this? "

You may wish to argue with the MTA's methodology, but it can be measured.

Mike Lachance's picture

I'll be waiting here and

I'll be waiting here and checking back to read from the MTA mouthpiece just how many times in the last 2 months i decided to NOT take the pike and instead drove on non-toll roads... and how far did I drive and how much revenue was lost by my decisions.

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

Mike: Our exchange started

Mike: Our exchange started with your claim that, "And isnt it ironic... since the MTA tolls have been jacked up, up and up, revenues and traffic has gone down down and down. Duh."

That been proven very false for revenue and in 11 of 12 toll increasaes with traffic numbers. After 12 toll increases since opening in 1947, Turnpike traffic declined once. In 2009. Revenue has never declined after a toll increase. E-ZPass revenue has increased and cash revenue has increased every toll increase. Our traffic numbers are currently below 2003 levels, however, our revenue since 2003 has increased by $40 million. Although we'd like as many people as possible to use the Turnpike, the key is to reach a revenue goal. The structure of the Turnpike lends that those who use it pay a toll. Those who do not use the Turnpike pay no toll. You've chosen to avoid the Turnpike and that's your prerogative as it is for others.

You've stated your opinions and we welcome them. It's quite apparent that your mind will not be changed or that you will agree with any proposal or be staified with any response. Be well.

Mike Lachance's picture

Really? Who's not listening now...

you state: "It's quite apparent that your mind will not be changed or that you will agree with any proposal or be staified with any response."

So you're trying to change my mind to go along with MTA raising tolls once again when its wildly unpopular with a clear majority of Mainers (for good reason; the system is unfair at best)... Then you claim I will not "agree with any proposal". So you're telling me that the idea of a 100% fair toll rate system of pay-per-mile will NOT be proposed. (no matter what?) Who's being stubborn?

If you're going to claim that MTA is listening to ALL proposals and then qualify that by stating I will not agree with ANY proposal, when Ive already given you one I agree with (along with many others in Maine) you're presenting yourself here as quite out-of-touch with those of us who are not part of the "system".

Just sayin'.
I understand now; you will not be accepting or considering all proposals put forth by the people.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Mr Stone, I agree with your thinking, but...

If your expecting any kind of support from Portland , Saco area, good luck. They will fight to the death to maintain their access to free travel on 95, and 295. They go right through Portland, South Portland, and provide free access to Rt.1 south and north. It's not just commuter traffic their protecting , it's commerce being moved. This would impact the local transfer of goods, and Jetport air freight, and all the terminals and warehouses in the 295 corridor. Much the same way it will kill freight transfer in L/A, as well as the western foothills area. Why would a truck travel down Rt.4 from Canada, only to have to pay a lot to keep heading south. They could just as easy change their rout a little, and ride for free a lot further south and then pay less tolls to get to New Hampshire. Thus avoiding any kind of delivery, pick up, or any kind of normal transactions in this area. Anything done in this area will cost local businesses more, which we all know trickles down. You can keep crunching the numbers all you want, what you need to crunch is the New Gloucester barrier toll plaza....

Mike Lachance's picture

Eloquent and accurate. Thank

Eloquent and accurate. Thank you Frank.

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