LEWISTON – Drivers along the Maine Turnpike will soon be able to proceed with speed, even through the New Gloucester tolls.

Highway leaders unveiled a $4.8 million plan Thursday calling for the demolition of the center six lanes of the New Gloucester tolls. In their place, the plan calls for the construction of one southbound and one northbound lane for E-ZPass customers.

The speed limit: 45 miles per hour.

The changes, tentatively slated for 2009, would be the first in New England to employ highway speed toll collection, said Paul Violette, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority.

A bigger project, including the relocation of the toll plaza and four highway-speed lanes, is planned for York County. However, that project is likely to begin in 2011 and take two building seasons to complete. The New Gloucester project will take one season to finish.

The plans were outlined Thursday in a workshop meeting of the seven-member Maine Turnpike Authority, which gathered at Bates College in Lewiston.

Officials also announced that plans for a new service plaza in Gardiner are moving forward. Work on the plaza, which is to be built near the intersection of the turnpike and Route 295, will begin within weeks, said Conrad Welzel, the turnpike’s government relations manager.

Utilities workers will begin on the site by December, Welzel said. Construction on the buildings could begin as soon as January.

The plaza, which will be similar in design to the recently completed plazas in Kennebunk, is due to be completed in 2009, he said. When that happens, service areas in Lewiston and Litchfield, which have gas stations and Burger King restaurants, will be closed.

Thursday’s meeting was dominated with talk of fast lanes and E-ZPass, however.

Consulting engineer Roland Lavallee displayed animated computer models that illustrated how traffic moves through the reconfigured tolls.

People paying cash would pull to the right, much as they would in a traditional exit. However, the growing share of vehicles equipped with the E-ZPass devices would see little interruption. And neighbors of the toll plazas would likely see a steep decline in noise, since most tractor trailers are equipped with E-ZPass and would not need to brake and shift has they do now to slow to the speed limit through all plazas, 10 miles per hour.

About 40 to 45 percent of drivers on the highway are equipped with the windshield devices. However, by 2010, that number is predicted to rise to 70 percent, Violette said.

The York tolls will be the biggest of the projects though, in part to better capture the vast revenue source created by out-of-state motorists.

Though about 20 percent of the traffic along the turnpike is created by drivers from outside Maine, they account for about 35 percent of total revenue, Violette said.

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