The Maine Turnpike rate increase saga is winding to a conclusion, as unsatisfactory as it may be.
The rate at the New Gloucester toll barrier will likely go up by 50 cents to $2.25, which is slightly less than the $2.50 first proposed. Let’s hear a half-hearted hurrah for that.
But the unfairness of the turnpike’s rate structure remains. What’s more, the inequity of urban interstate access in Maine seems destined to plague Lewiston-Auburn forever.
Consider, for instance, Maine’s largest city, Portland, which has seven free in-town interstate exits along Interstate 295 and four I-95 turnpike exits along its western edge.
Or consider Maine’s third-largest city, Bangor, which has six interstate I-95 exits stretching across its western periphery and two on I-395. All free.
Finally, consider Maine’s second-largest city, Lewiston: one interstate exit at the distant edge of its population base.
Or Auburn, the fifth-largest city in Maine, with another poorly placed exit near its southern periphery.
That’s it. Two interstate exits for about 60,000 residents here, and eight exits for Bangor-Brewer’s 40,000.
What a transportation disadvantage.
Over the years, since the dream of a true circumferential highway died here in the 1970s, the cities have pieced together, largely through necessity, an improved crosstown route via the Veterans Bridge.
But this is a far cry from the kind of benefit I-295 brings to Portland-South Portland or I-95/I-395 brings to Bangor-Brewer.
The evidence of this was highlighted by an informal traffic study the Sun Journal did last week. We found that only 4.7 percent of the traffic getting on the southbound Lewiston turnpike ramp got off in Auburn. Only 4.5 percent of the traffic taking Auburn’s northbound ramp got off in Lewiston.
Basically, the existence of the turnpike does almost nothing to help speed traffic within and between the Twin Cities. Plus, vehicles here must plow through miles of city traffic and red lights to even reach a high-speed interstate ramp.
During recent public meetings held in cities along the turnpike’s route, residents of Biddeford-Saco complained they must pay for travel between their cities while Lewiston-Auburn residents do not.
Actually, when you look at a map, its difficult to see why Biddeford or Saco residents would use the turnpike to travel between their cities. Like in Lewiston-Auburn, the turnpike and its exits are about as far as they can be from their urban cores.
More likely, residents there simply resent paying $1 to get on the turnpike from either exit to go other places.
Before complaining, they should think about this: If they go north to Portland via the turnpike and I-295 using the Maine Mall exit, then return via I-295 and the turnpike, that round trip is $2. And that cost will not change in the turnpike’s new rate structure.
A similar trip from Lewiston-Auburn into downtown Portland costs $5.50. In a few months it will jump to $6.50.
The turnpike brags that its average cost per mile is 4.7 cents if traveling from end to end.
That 36-mile round trip from Biddeford to Portland on the turnpike is slightly higher, 5.55 cents per mile.
But the Auburn-Portland rate will soon be 9.56 cents per mile. That’s higher than the two most expensive turnpikes in the U.S., New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which average 7.7 cents per mile.
As the biggest business, shopping and entertainment center in the state, Portland is also the state’s biggest intrastate destination for people living north and south.
And the tolls are much higher to reach that hub from the Lewiston-Auburn area by interstate highway than any other city or region in southern Maine.
Don’t look for this situation to change anytime soon. Much of this inequity is due to a historical quirk: The turnpike was built before the era of federally financed interstates. In other words, we didn’t get one.
But the Maine Turnpike Authority controls what it controls, and it still has a chance to make its toll system fairer.
But it seems determined to ignore that opportunity.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.