PORTLAND — In a tentative vote Thursday, the Maine Turnpike Authority agreed to revise the tolling scheme for the state's only toll road, bumping up cash tolls by as much as $1 at some locations.
Under the plan, the cash tolls at the York, New Gloucester and West Gardiner plazas would go up. The York toll would increase from $2 to $3, while tolls at New Gloucester and West Gardiner would increase by 50 cents, from $1.75 to $2.25 and from $1.25 to $1.75, respectively.
The plan also adds 50 cents to the toll at the southbound exit in Gray and the northbound exit in Wells.
The authority's first proposal would have hiked the tolls at New Gloucester and West Gardiner by 75 cents.
The plan adopted Thursday would increase by 10 percent the rate for E-ZPass users. The original proposal would have hiked those rates by 20 percent. Under the proposal, E-ZPass users would pay 7.4 cents per mile, on average. They currently pay 6.7 cents.
The authority's 5-2 vote will be ratified or amended when its board of directors meets Aug. 16.
The toll changes would go into effect by a written order that day, board Chairman Daniel Wathen said.
Thursday's vote came after several public meetings and a long discussion on the toll hikes by the MTA board in July. The hikes were proposed because the authority must raise an additional $21 million to help pay long-term debt, operations and maintenance costs. The biggest portion of the authority's budget goes toward debt payments; a balloon payment on principal and interest comes due in a few years.
Bob Stone of Auburn, who represents Androscoggin County on the MTA board, voted against the plan, saying he was concerned the new scheme did little to alleviate the toll inequity for people traveling from Lewiston-Auburn.
Residents and city and state officials say people from Western Maine and the L-A area pay more than southern Mainers to travel on the turnpike, and the increase at New Gloucester would add to that inequity.
Stone also said the plan, as tentatively adopted, left unclear the impact it would have on the state's commercial trucking industry.
"I will not be supporting this motion," Stone said prior to the vote Thursday. "It exacerbates inequity and without seeing the data, I don't know what this does to the trucking industry."
Earlier in the day, Stone proposed a toll structure that would set a per-mile rate for all motorists. Stone said his idea, which was developed with help from the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce and the Androscoggin Council of Governments, addressed the toll inequity for commuters and businesses from Lewiston-Auburn.
Stone said his plan would have pushed for an all-electronic tolling system that would be piloted on the Sabattus, Lewiston and Auburn exits. Those exits would cost 25 cents each. Tollbooths were removed from those exits by the authority in the 1990s because they never generated enough revenue to pay for the cost of operating them, he said. Still, some in the greater Portland area have complained that while they pay $1 to enter and exit the turnpike, Lewiston and Auburn get "free" exits.
Stone said his proposal would have seen all motorists paying the same per-mile rate for any distance driven on the turnpike.
"I wanted to eliminate discounts and eliminate caps," Stone said. He also said his plan would have eliminated a minimum toll of 50 cents paid by Portland-area E-ZPass users. They, too, would pay a per-mile rate.
Stone said the authority's staff was still crunching the numbers on how much revenue his proposal would have raised.
"Maybe that proposal is flat-out unable to generate enough revenue," Stone said. "But it may generate even more revenue than we need. But I don't know how you can vote without knowing the numbers. I like to know the numbers before I make up my mind about anything."
Stone said there was interest in his idea because many on the board were interested in re-establishing a more equitable tolling system for Maine.
"It's just straight fair," Stone said. "Nobody, neither legislators nor commuters, could say they were being treated inequitably under that scenario. You drive a mile, you pay a mile."
The plan adopted Thursday would increase the rate paid by commercial trucks that pay by cash or use an electronic tolling device from a state other than Maine.
But that rate jump is offset by continuing discounts for truckers using Maine E-ZPass transponders and for those who use the turnpike enough to be eligible for a volume discount, said James Cloutier, Cumberland County's representative on the board.
Cloutier proposed the newly ammended plan. Wathen, who represents Kennebec County, said it was unclear how $600,000 to $700,000 in new revenue from the increases would be spent.
He proposed using any of that money to further offset the impact on commercial trucking and suggested the board adopt a modification of the plan at its Aug. 16 meeting.
"It is a tentative vote," Wathen said several times before and after the vote.
Stone said he didn't expect the board to change the plan much on final enactment, but he did see some positives from the process that's taken place over the past several months: The total revenue the authority was seeking to raise has decreased by $10 million, from an initial figure of $31 million to the current $21 million.
"In the end, we lowered what we needed to borrow by about $10 million," Stone said. "That's the good news. The bad news is the inequities continue under the tentative vote that ocurred today."