PORTLAND, Maine — Motorists traveling the full length of the Maine Turnpike will pay 40 percent more, with cash increases of 50 cents to a dollar at three toll plazas, under a plan approved Thursday by the turnpike's board.
The plan, effective Nov. 1, increases cash tolls by $1 at the York toll plaza and by 50 cents at toll plazas in West Gardiner and New Gloucester. Also, there are 50-cent increases for northbound traffic entering in Wells and southbound traffic entering in Gray. Maine E-ZPass rates will increase 1 cent per mile.
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. That said, it's still an increase and it's never a good time for an increase," said Brian Parke, president of the trade group for Maine's trucking industry, which will pay more under the plan just like passenger vehicles.
The rate increase 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.
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," he said.
Critics pointed to inequities of Maine's toll system, where motorists can pay vastly different rates per mile depending on where they get on and off the highway.
Turnpike officials say E-ZPass electronic payments are more equitable because they're billed per mile up, allowing for potential savings over flat rates paid at toll plazas.
The board on Thursday directed the turnpike to take steps to make it easier for Maine motorists to participate in the electronic tolling system, which is in use in 14 states.
Already, the turnpike has reduced the cost of the transponder device from $25 to $10. And the turnpike is considering selling transponders at AAA branches and allowing online activation instead of the current system of mailing in E-ZPass applications to the turnpike headquarters, Mills said.
Mills predicted that within 10 to 20 years the Maine Turnpike will exclusively use electronic tolling. At present, 62 percent of Maine Turnpike revenues come from E-ZPass users; of that total 38 percent comes from Maine motorists and 24 percent comes from out-of-staters, he said.
The last toll increase was in February 2009. When the new toll rates go into effect, the cash cost for drivers will be $3 in York, $2.25 in New Gloucester and $1.75 in West Gardiner. Tolls will increase to $1.50 for northbound traffic entering in Wells and southbound traffic entering in Gray.
The toll increases came four months after the turnpike's former executive director, Paul Violette, was sentenced to prison for using turnpike gift cards and credit cards for personal travel, meals and other expenses in Maine, Massachusetts, Canada, Bermuda, the Caribbean and Europe.
The use of turnpike money for spas, upscale hotels and meals at fancy restaurants sparked outrage.
"We definitely understand that the public is sensitive to this, especially considering the mismanagement of funds in the past. You add on record high gas prices that we're paying this year, and it only adds more salt to the wound," said Pat Moody of AAA Northern New England in Portland.
But the toll increase had nothing to do with Violette's excesses, Mills has said.
Much of the increase will help to pay off debt from a widening project that was completed eight years ago. The revenue will also allow the turnpike authority to continue a 30-year plan to maintain and rehabilitate network of bridges, interchanges and paved highway.
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