New option means 'pike hike not so steep for L-A

PORTLAND — A  new Maine Turnpike toll-increase option presented Thursday would mean previously proposed toll hikes could be revised downward by as much as 50 cents at certain interchanges.

Why does MTA need to raise the tolls?

Maine Turnpike Authority officials built their revenue projections 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."

—Pattie Reaves

Under the new scenario, those paying cash tolls at the New Gloucester toll plaza would pay $2.25 and those passing through the West Gardiner toll plaza would pay $1.75.

The previous plan, which drew citizen fervor during an Auburn public meeting in June, would have bumped those tolls to $2.50 and $2, respectively. The tolls are currently $1.75 at New Gloucester and $1.25 at West Gardiner.

The new plan could also remove a proposed increase to the multiplier that commercial vehicles pay. That change would allow Maine's commercial trucking industry to avoid a more than $2 million annual increase in toll expenses.

After a round of raucous and often emotional public hearings, the Maine Turnpike Authority board of directors met Thursday to discuss its plans to increase toll revenue in an effort to maintain the highway's debt payments in future years. No vote was taken.

MTA staff presented the board — representatives from the counties through which the turnpike slices — with some new numbers, including a revision downward in the revenue it will need to make debt payments.

Treasurer Douglas Davidson said borrowing for several capital improvement projects that would not be ready for construction this year could be delayed to future budgets.

In all, about $84 million worth of projects could be pushed to future budgets, Davidson said. 

The debt payments on those projects would save the authority about $5 million a year, meaning the additional amount the authority now needs to raise each year is $21 million, down from a previous figure of $26 million.

One of the projects that's delayed because of federal permitting and other issues is an interchange expansion and renovation for Exit 80 in Lewiston.

Regular and ongoing maintenance including annual bridge repair and paving projects were not subject to the change for capital improvements and would continue under the plan.

Another savings of about $2 million would be realized by delaying the replacement of turnpike guide signs that promote area attractions. Those signs are typically replaced every 20 years, but they were deemed adequate.

Delaying the debt would help the authority get past a bulge in debt-service payments coming due in the next two years, mostly for expansion and bridge-replacement projects that have been completed or are in the works.

Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills said the staff took a "microscopic" look at everything in the budget after the initial public meetings on the tolls. One unifying message directors and staff heard from those meetings was that the proposed hikes were too much for the current economic times and ought to be reduced, Mills said.

While the MTA has reduced its operating costs by more than 10 percent over the past two years, Mills said, the public often doesn't realize the authority's largest expense remains its debt payments on bonds for capital improvements.

Decreasing the borrowing would give the authority "more breathing space to pay down the debts, interest and principle that are coming due through the years 2014 to 2018," he said.

Androscoggin County's representative on the board, Robert Stone of Auburn, pitched an alternative plan to lessen the burden on New Gloucester but double from $1 to $2 the cash tolls drivers pay to exit onto Interstate 295.

Stone said his tolling scheme was designed to generate the revenue the turnpike needs, promote greater E-ZPass usage and extract more revenue from out-of-state travelers.

His plan also would equalize toll inequities facing Lewiston-Auburn travelers who have no alternate "free" route similar to I-295, Stone said.

He said out-of-state travelers get a real bargain when they divert off the turnpike and up I-295. He said tolls for 13 miles in New Hampshire are $2, or $4 for a round trip, while those shooting up I-295 are $2 for 53 miles. 

Those diversions off the turnpike mean that those who do have to use the 'pike pay more for it.

"I really have a problem with that, because Maine motorists are really getting hosed," Stone said.

He also promoted the idea of not increasing the multiplier for commercial vehicles, saying their traffic was vital to commerce in Maine and to the economy in Lewiston-Auburn, in particular.

"I think it's very, very important that the authority does not become an impediment to economic growth in the state," Stone said. 

Others on the panel said they understood his point of view but felt it was only fair that commercial truckers pay their share, especially given the impact they have on the roadway.

Turnpike staff also presented numbers showing the state's only toll road was ranked near the bottom in overall toll costs, both for passenger cars and commercial vehicles when compared to other toll roads in the country.

Even with the increases, Maine's toll roads would remain among the least expensive.

As for increasing the exit to I-295 tolls, Daniel Wathen, chairman of the MTA board, said that would be viewed as the authority extending its reach and it would be seen as a "de facto" toll on I-295, which was built with state and federal interstate highway funds and could not legally be tolled.

He said the $1 tolls now paid essentially cover the costs of those vehicles for the short portions of the turnpike they use. 

"It's defensible only on the idea we are trying to equalize 295," Wathen said. "I understand your feeling completely, but it just doesn't seem to me that we can or we should equalize that because they knew it was going to have an impact on us and it was designed to have an impact on us."

Stone said after the meeting that he didn't expect his plan for I-295 tolls to be adopted, but he hoped the multiplier for commercial trucks would not be increased.

"We need to make sure we take care of that trucking industry," Stone said. 

Getting more L-A travelers to use the E-ZPass system would save on round-trip costs south. Under the new proposal a round trip to Portland using the E-ZPass would cost $4.80 while the round-trip cost in cash would be $5.50.

The authority's board is expected to make a final decision on the toll increases at a 9 a.m. Aug. 2 meeting at its headquarters in Portland.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Tony Morin's picture

Downtown Gray Traffic

I hope downtown Gray is ready for the additional traffic. I know there is discussion among commuters who typically use the Auburn exit regarding getting on and off in Gray. Would save a commuter over $800 annually. I've done it a couple of times recently. Not sure I have the patience for it consistently, but others will do it to save money.

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

We certainly hope you use the

We certainly hope you use the Turnpike in the future Tony. MTA numbers show a small percentage historically start to avoid the Turnpike after toll increases, however, within two months traffic returns to pre-toll increase levels.

In addition, a third-party study in 2007 revealed that 9 of 10 commercial trucks exiting the Turnpike at Gray and/or Auburn do so due to local delivery and business obligations between the two exits.

DANNY FITZSIMMONS's picture

cut employees

one of the largest parts of cost is the employees cost posting automated ticket stations would cost about 70-80 thousand each which would pay for itself in less than 4 years. after which the saving could again be used for such things as trips to monte carlo or other large scale perks for the upper tier execs.

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

The MTA had nearly 900

The MTA had nearly 900 employees prior to the implementation of electronic tolling in 1997 and now has just over 300 full-time and about 100 part-time employees. The MTA just a few weeks ago cut an additional 20 supervisory positions. Mr. Mills also eliminated the deputy director position and combined other positions for completion by single employees since his arrival. One electronic toll lane can handle the equivalent of 4-5 cash lanes and annually save just over $1 million in operating costs alone.

Michael Hobbs's picture

So, Lewiston/Auburn residents

So, Lewiston/Auburn residents will continue to be burdened with paying for improvements to the turnpike in the Greater Portland area (widening project done south of Portland and improvements to both the Westbrook exit and current Falmouth project), while at the same time have now been told Lewiston's improvements will be put on hold. How exactly does the MTA think that this is still fair to citizens of Lewiston-Auburn? Legislators across the state need to look long and hard at this agency. Enough is enough, no increasing tolls in Lewiston-Auburn's neck of the woods without being able to justify it. There is inequities between both toll prices and improvements, Hopefully the legislators in Augusta, both city councils and Bob Stone can actually talk some since into the MTA, more importantly other representatives in Augusta to finally take more control over the agency.

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

Michael, The first 45 miles

Michael,

The first 45 miles of the Turnpike were built in 1947. The rest up to Augusta was built in 1955. It would only mske sense the southern end would be rebuilt first. However, the northern end is hardly ignored by the MTA. There been over $48 million in capital projects completed between Auburn and Sabattus from 1997 through the 1st quarter of 2012 and another $51 million scheduled through 2018. I'd be happy to forward the information if you email info@maineturnpike.com.

The Lewiston Interchange Projecthas been delayed due to other factors besides MTA process including property acquisition discussions and permitting permitting delays. We would not have been able to start according to schedule regardless.

Michael Hobbs's picture

There is a big difference

There is a big difference between rebuilding and expanding, your argument would be justified if they just rebuilt the previous four lane stretch rather than adding additional two lanes (one north and one south). When they added on those two lanes it added additional costs which is now being felt financially, in which the MTA is trying to make up for their poor decisions on the backs of working Mainers in particular those in Lewiston-Auburn. Why not up the toll on the side toll booths instead, for instance all those in Greater Portland area and the off-ramp in which to get onto I-295? I know you are going to feed me some rhetoric off of the MTA website, but you will not sway the minds of citizens of Lewiston-Auburn that everything is equal in regards to tolls. When they go through the New Gloucester toll booth and pay $1.75 and get on trying to head north from Greater Portland just to only hand them a dollar bill (not to mention the additional $1.75 AGAIN in New Gloucester). I know you are going to try and promote the E-Z Pass, but what happens when everyone goes over to the E-Z Pass? It will be just like when a national chain store goes into a small town wipes out all the competition only to jack their prices up afterwards (probably not an immediate impact, but steadily). I am rather curious, how much in improvements has the Greater Portland area seen in the same time frame? Lastly, much like you I am originally from Lewiston (at least that's what your profile says) and am currently living in the Greater Portland area, but unlike you I see the inequalities when it comes between the two different regions. I know that the legislators from L/A area, the city councils and Bob Stone's plans will be shot down because frankly Greater Portland has more legislators and more members on the board, but I am damn proud that they have stood up and fought for their hometowns instead of just rolling over.

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

You are certainly correct

You are certainly correct Michael between the difference in expansion and rebuilding. The widening, however, was a long and somewhat contentious process ultimately approved by 61% of Maine voters in the late 90s. It is important to note that the York Toll and the side tolls south of New Gloucester account for 72% of Turnpike revenue and that will increase under the proposed plan. Also, the extra $1 proposed for York will realize an additional $13.8 million while the proposed 50 cent increases at New Gloucester and West Gardiner will result in an extra $4.1 combined.

The MTA is also allowed by law to expand to three lanes in each direction from Exit 44 to 53 around this time period, however, traffic projections do not warrant to expansion or expenditure.

The side tolls and 295 diversion is a major point of discussion among board members. Mr. Mills, board members, or myself are certainly not trying to convince anyone that everything is equal relating to toll rates. The current physical structure of the Turnpike, decided long ago, makes cash toll equity impossible. Moving to E-ZPass is the best way to rectify imbalance. MTA consultants have stated that full saturation for E-ZPass will likely be around 75% from the current 62%. That, however, is a expected to be a long way off. It's important to note that out-of-state E-ZPass users pay the cash rate and I don't see that changing in the near future.

Since the area north of Exit 45 was built at the same time as the stretch to Lewiston-Auburn and Augusta there will need to be some rehabilitation, however, those projects have not been out of proportion to those north.

Discussion will certainly continue and Mr. Stone has been a welcome addition to the board. His diligence, hard work and advocacy has enhanced the debate. the decision is, as you correctly stated, up to the full 7-member board. Two are from Kennebec County, two from Cumberland County, one from Androscoggin County, one from York and one ex-officio member representing the MaineDOT.

Larry Turbide's picture

The pike hike is still going

The pike hike is still going to be a very steep option if you are an EZ Pass user and have a commuter plan. I use exits 80 (Lewiston and 53 (West Falmouth). Under the current commuter plan I pay about $66.00 quarterly (every three months). I have heard that the commuter plan is being abolished, and the latest I heard is that EZ Pass users will be paying 8 cents per mile under the new proposed plan. In my case it would work out to $2.16 per trip, $4.32 per round trip, or $21.60 per 5 day work week. $21.60 per week times 52 weeks works out to $1,123.20 per year, compared to the $264 per year that I currently pay. That's over a 400% increase!

Dan MAINE TURNPIKE AUTHORITY's picture

Toll increases are the most

Toll increases are the most difficult part of MTA operations. The reasons for increases are never an easy to communicate and can cause considerable concern to commuters such as yourself. One way to combat large toll increases is to consider an incremental rate increase over a number of years. Just like the costs of operating and maintaining infrastructure increase each year due to inflation, the costs of gasoline, milk, bread, etc., goes up with inflation every year.

When the Commuter Discount Prorgam was instituted during a toll increase in 1982 it was set at 50% of the 1958 toll rates. Through 7 subsequent toll increases the Commuter Program was only partially increased twice. Commuter Program users now account for 16% of annual Turnpike trips and only 5% of total revenue.

In addition, although the Commuter Program is 30 years old it has only 23,000 customers as opposed to the complete E-ZPass/Transpass program(s) which has 140,000 yet has only been in place since 1997. Not to mention, only two-thirds of Commuter Program users actually receive the full discount. What the MTA is looking to do is too substitute a Volume Based Discount Program for all 140,000 E-ZPass users for the current Commuter Program.

You currently pay $66.00 a quarter for the Commuter Pass. The Commuter Pass requires 2 trips a day; 5 days a week for 13 weeks. That's 130 trips each quarter in order to receive your current rate/charge). It comes out to 51 cents a each trip, or 1.8 cents a mile. Under the Volume Discount and the newly proposed toll increase your E-ZPass rate for each one-way trip between Exit 80 and 53 would be $1.80. $1.80 for 130 trips would be $230.00 each quarter. AT 40+ trips per month your Volume Discount would be a 30% discount each month for a total of $163.80 each quarter, or $655.20 a year. The end result is $1.26 per 27 mile trip (4.6 cents a mile).

One theme which dominated the public comment process was fairness. Regular E-ZPass users now get a 5.4 cents rate to travel between Exit 80 and 53 and the suggested rate is 6.5 cents per mile. Also, as a result of not periodically adjusting the Commuter rates since 1982 some Commuter Pass users get a 50% discount and some get as much of 78%. The current discount is very deep, not equally applied and benefits only 16% of E-ZPass users.

Unfortunately, users such as yourself will see an significant increase in your commuter rates, however, Mr. Mills and the current board have been pressed by the public to move toward equity for all users through E-ZPass.

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