PORTLAND — The board of directors of the Maine Turnpike Authority voted unanimously Thursday for toll increases that will help boost revenues by $21.14 million a year.
"I think these all slice our lunch meat pretty thin," said James Cloutier of Portland, the Cumberland County representative on the board, summing up the effort the board has made to keep the toll increases as low as possible.
Cloutier was discussing several late-developing options, including one that removed a previously proposed rate increase on commercial trucks.
Under the plan approved Thursday, trucks will continue to pay four times as much as passenger vehicles. An earlier proposal would have bumped that to 4.25 times, adding an estimated $2 million a year in costs to the state's trucking industry.
Cash tolls at the turnpike's main barrier tollbooths in York, New Gloucester and West Gardiner will increase. New Gloucester and West Gardiner will increase by 50 cents — from $1.75 to $2.25 and from $1.25 to $1.75, respectively. The toll at the York plaza will be bumped from $2 to $3.
The plan also will increase the entrance tolls for Wells northbound and Gray southbound from $1 to $1.50. The rationale behind that change is to make it less attractive to dodge the nearby and more expensive barrier tolls at New Gloucester and York.
Under the new rates, the cost of traveling the entire turnpike from York to Augusta will increase from $5 to $7.
The president of the Maine Motor Transport Association said he was confident that the toll increase was necessary.
"They've done a lot of good work in minimizing the effect that the toll increase is going to have on people who use the turnpike," said Brian Parke, president of the trade group for Maine's trucking industry. "That said, it's still an increase and it's never a good time for an increase,"
The increases will bring in an additional $21.1 million in annual revenue, helping to cover the turnpike's operating budget, maintenance and long-term debt service.
MTA Executive Director Peter Mills said that even with the increase, the Maine Turnpike remains among the bottom 20 percent among U.S. toll roads for cost. And it seems inexpensive compared to $12 to get under the Hudson River in New York and a proposed $14 toll for a new Tappan Zee Bridge outside New York.
"You're still getting a bargain for driving 109 miles in Maine," Mills said.
Those using the turnpike's electronic tolling system, called E-ZPass, will pay a penny more per mile, from 6.7 cents to 7.7 cents.
Volume discounts for those using E-ZPass will start after 30 trips per month. The previous volume discount began at 20 trips.
The final vote, which came after 30 minutes of discussion, represents several months of research and public meetings at which authority directors shopped a range of toll-hike changes. Pushing the increase is debt-service costs that are coming due in the next few years.
Under the new tolling scheme, which goes into effect Nov. 1, the authority's directors believe any future toll increases would not be necessary until 2031.
Prior to Thursday's vote, the board discussed a proposal by Director Bob Stone of Auburn that would have pushed for a return to a per-mile rate for all turnpike users. That proposal aimed to push more motorists to an electronic tolling system, but would also have required the reinstallation of cash tollbooths. Under that scenario, the per-mile cost would have been set at 5 cents.
Turnpike authority staff outlined several barriers the proposal presented, including an estimated $10 million in costs to rebuild booths. Other barriers included a need to widen parts of the turnpike in the Greater Portland area because the lower per-mile rate would likely push traffic volume upward.
Stone said he believed most members of the seven-member board were truly interested in moving toward a system that they have dubbed "pure equity" and that he would continue to push for that going forward.
For now, Stone said, Lewiston-Auburn motorists will face cash-toll increases, but the move Thursday was a small win for the cities' busy trucking industry.
"I think we got a little here compared to where we started," Stone said. "We lost things, things like the commuter discount and got a higher (E-ZPass rate) and certainly higher tolls at New Gloucester and West Gardiner, but we were not shut out, by any means."
One of the biggest losers will be those who benefit from the commuter discounts, for those traveling between two set exits on the turnpike. That change will affect between 10,000 and 20,000 of the 140,000 E-ZPass users.
Mills said many under the plan don't use the turnpike enough to benefit from the program, but between 7,000 and 10,000 of those commuters will see their travel costs increase.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.