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Toll hikes proposed for Maine Turnpike

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Toll hikes proposed for Maine Turnpike

LEWISTON — A proposal to increase tolls to generate an additional $26 million a year for the Maine Turnpike was presented to Gov. Paul LePage on June 1.

It will be rolled out to the public in a series of meetings starting June 19.

Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said the proposal includes toll increases for the highway's main barrier tolls and a restructuring of rates for E-ZPass holders and commuter discount programs.

Under the proposal favored by the turnpike's board of directors, cash tolls at West Gardiner and New Gloucester tollbooths would increase from $1.75 to $2.50, while the toll at the York booth would go from $2 to $3.

The proposal would also increase tolls for commercial trucks. For example, five-axle trucks now paying $7 to pass through the tollbooth at New Gloucester would pay an estimated $10.63 under the proposal.

The authority studied 10 tolling options to raise the money, which is needed for debt payments on reconstruction bonds coming due between 2014 and 2019, Mills said.

If approved, the proposal would put the turnpike on more solid financial ground in the future and could virtually eliminate the need to borrow for future expansion or other construction, he said.

"The collateral benefit is reducing the need of the turnpike to go to the bond markets in future years," Mills said. "I'm not saying it eliminates it, because you never know quite what the state's demands on us are going to be and we don't know what the traffic situation will be."

Mills said he knows the plan will be controversial. The proposed changes will not be settled until the traveling public weighs in at three meetings this month: at Auburn City Hall on June 19, Portland City Hall on June 20, and Saco City Hallon June 21. All three meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Mills said for most commuters and others who use the highway, the best way to minimize the financial impact would be to convert to the E-ZPass transponder system.

"For a person who lives in Lewiston, with an E-ZPass, whether they use it a little or a lot, they are going to get a better rate than by paying cash," Mills said.

He said he presented the plan Friday to the governor, who knew it was coming, but he wanted the governor to see it first before presenting it to the public.

"Every time I've gone to a Rotary Club or a chamber of commerce, I've said, 'You know, we've got a toll increase coming,' not knowing exactly what it will look like. I still don't know exactly what it will look like."

The decision on the toll changes will be made by the Maine Turnpike Authority's seven-member board.

Mills said a variety of proposals would be made available, but the one favored by the board was outlined above.

"The one thing we really have to do is raise the $26 million," Mills said. "How we raise it is not as critical. We've got a plan for doing it, but we want to expose that plan to public scrutiny and see how people respond to it."

The most recent toll increase was in 2009.

Scott Thistle is regional editor at the Sun Journal in Lewiston. He can be reached at sthistle@sunjournal.com.