The Universal Notebook: Maine Turnpike takes a toll on us all

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As much as I like Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Peter Mills, I cannot support or even condone his proposed turnpike toll increase.

Mills has done a great deal to straighten out the mess at the MTA in the wake of Paul Violette’s criminal mismanagement, but there’s no way a toll increase is warranted. Rather than increasing tolls, the folks at the MTA and in the state Legislature should be eliminating them entirely.

The argument for toll increases goes something like this: The turnpike was getting congested in southern Maine, so the MTA widened it despite a great deal of opposition, spending close to $200 million in the process. Then the economy crashed in 2008, gas prices went through the roof, and turnpike ridership, which had been increasing at a steady 3 percent a year, went flat and then started to decline. So now the MTA wants to raise tolls to offset lost revenue and pay its widening debt.

This line of reasoning prompts two questions, one academic, one pragmatic: First, did we really need to widen the turnpike in the first place? Second, if you raise tolls, don’t you imagine ridership will decline even more?

It strikes me as a race to the bottom – raise tolls, ridership decreases, raise tolls, ridership decreases, etc. You’ll end up with a $100-a-head highway used only by truckers and millionaires, kind of like the East-West Highway currently under consideration.

Personally, I realize I’m part of the MTA’s problem. I avoid the turnpike as much as possible. If I’m in no particular hurry, I take back roads between Yarmouth and my parents’ home in Westbrook. Taking the Maine Turnpike to Westbrook and back costs me $3. You can drive all the way to Portsmouth for $3. I’d rather spend those bills on a burger, so I go cross country about a third of the time.

Before the MTA seeks a toll increase, it needs to make sense of its current toll structure. I’m glad I know that if I drive a mile farther north I can get off the pike at Portland for free, but it ticks me off every time I drive past the Interstate 295 exit. Tolls should be based on mileage, even if that means returning to a ticket system.

Of course, I’m on record as being in favor of disbanding the MTA altogether and turning the turnpike over to the Maine Department of Transportation. The argument against doing so is that the state would have to come up with the $133 million a year to maintain the 106 miles of highway, probably through an increase of about eight cents in the state gas tax. But, heck, the price of gas fluctuates eight cents a day all the time. We’d never know we were being taxed and never miss the pennies.

But then there’s the further argument that paying for the turnpike with tax dollars would mean that people who don’t use the turnpike would be helping to pay for it. Well, duh, they should have been all along.

The spurious notion that people should only have to pay for public services from which they benefit directly is positively un-American. It’s like those self-serving folks who argue that they shouldn’t have to pay taxes for education because they don’t have kids in the schools. The civil society of the United States is based on the proposition that we all share the cost of the things that make a society civil – national defense, public safety, public education, public health, transportation infrastructure, etc. The American Way is redistribution of wealth, whether tax-capping conservative tea partiers care to admit it or not.

In any event, everyone in Maine benefits from the Maine Turnpike, even though it takes its greatest toll on those of us who use it. The turnpike is Maine’s primary connection to the outside world. The car you buy in Van Buren, the groceries you buy in Bethel, the tourists who buy your lobsters in Lubec very likely came up the pike.

The Maine Turnpike is Maine’s driveway. We should all be paying to maintain it. Through taxes, not tolls.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.