PORTLAND (AP) – A legislative committee on Wednesday authorized a feasibility study of adding tolls to Maine’s interstate highway system. Gov. John Baldacci immediately called it a bad idea.

The Transportation Committee voted 12-1 to have the Maine Turnpike Authority conduct the study and report back in January.

Tolls are already collected on the 109-mile turnpike between York and Augusta, but the 280 miles of interstate highways are toll-free in the rest of the state.

The committee asked for the study because the state needs more money to maintain the highway system, said Sen. Dennis Damon, co-chairman of the committee. Damon said he’s not advocating additional tolls, but supports studying all options.

“If we can’t find more money for our transportation needs and infrastructure, the only thing to do is shut down roads and bridges,” said Damon, a Democrat from Trenton.

The feasibility study will collect and summarize traffic data for Interstate 295 from Falmouth to Gardiner and I-95 from Augusta to Houlton.

It will analyze bridge and pavement conditions of the highways, forecast future needs and identify possible toll plaza locations. The study will also develop revenue and cost information.

Following the committee vote, the reaction from Baldacci was swift. He issued a statement saying he opposes the idea of additional tolls and can “assure you it will not happen during my term in office.”

“Before they start talking about tolls on the interstate, we need to cut the administrative costs of operating a separate Turnpike Authority and Department of Transportation,” Baldacci said. “We must find every possible efficiency in the way we manage our transportation network, and we must make that our current resources are being used effectively.”

The fact remains, however, that Maine’s transportation network is in dire need of additional funding, Damon said.

The Department of Transportation’s 20-year draft plan estimates the state’s transportation needs will cost $5.4 billion over the next 10 years, said Deputy Commissioner Greg Nadeau. At the same time, the state anticipates only $3.2 billion in funding – leaving a $2.2 billion gap.

Before any toll expansion could be implemented, both the Maine Legislature and Congress would have to sign off, Damon said. The idea may be politically unpopular, but lawmakers are obligated to at least study the issue, he said.

“I think it’s irresponsible for us to not look at it,” he said.

The state gets about $20 million a year from the federal government to maintain the interstates, but that’s just a small fraction of what’s needed, officials said.

Mainers in June approved a ballot question to spend $113 million for transportation projects. Possible uses include improvements to highways and bridges, airports, public transit facilities, ferry and port facilities, and bicycle and pedestrian trails.

While the money is welcome, it’s not a sustainable solution to meet the state’s transportation needs, Damon said.

Dan Paradee, spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority, said the idea of tolls on the interstate will touch off a discussion.

“Our exerience has been that people are willing to pay tolls if they know the tolls are going to be used to maintain the infrastructure they drive on. But there’s no question there’d be a lively debate about it,” he said.

AP-ES-09-26-07 1708EDT

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