Seacoast Online: MTA to hold public meeting on $1 toll hikeJun 26, 2012
YORK, Maine — As the Maine Turnpike Authority plans to hold a public hearing on Thursday in Saco on its proposed toll increase — $1 at the York toll plaza alone — local officials and residents are expressing decidedly mixed feelings.
The MTA will hold a meeting at the Saco Town Hall, the nearest location to southern York County, at 6:30 p.m on June 21. Another will be held at Portland City Hall on Wednesday, also at 6:30 p.m.
MTA Executive Director Peter Mills on Tuesday said he’s planning to come to York for a special meeting as soon as early July to discuss the toll increase, the status of the York toll plaza all-electronic tolling study and the MTA’s involvement in the Piscataqua River bridges.
Mills announced a plan to hike tolls earlier this month to raise at least $26.5 million to meet its current and long-term financial obligations. Mills said the money will be used to pay for the widening of the Maine Turnpike in southern Maine, costs associated with rebuilding the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge and maintaining all three bridges between Maine and New Hampshire, and to maintain and repair the northern portion of the turnpike.
As proposed, the toll will increase for cash customers from $2 to $3 at the York toll plaza. E-ZPass customers will pay considerably less, depending on where they exit. For instance, they will pay 95 cents to exit at Wells and $2.95 to exit at Interstate 295 in Portland.
That strengthens the hand of the York citizen group Think Again, which wants the MTA to install all-electronic tolling at the York toll plaza, said member Marshall Jarvis.
“We would like to see more people use E-ZPass,” he said. “Those who are paying cash should pay more because cash costs more to handle” in terms of paying toll booth operators and supervisors. “E-ZPass is more equitable. This is the right direction.”
Jarvis stressed he was speaking for himself and said Think Again has not taken a formal position on the toll increase. He said he understands the logic of the toll increase.
“This is Peter (Mills) and his group having to pay for the decisions of Paul (Violette, former MTA executive director) and his group,” he said. “This is their funding mechanism for prior capital expenditures.”
Not everyone agrees. State Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York, said she feels southern York County residents are paying a disproportionate burden.
“It’s too burdensome, especially in this economy,” she said. “The amount of the fee is unfair.”
Hill suggested the MTA go back to the future, and reinstate the system it had previously of charging people per miles used, as is done on the Massachusetts turnpike. She said she realizes this was abandoned in Maine to save on toll collecting costs, but should be explored as a more equitable solution for all.
She said she’s also concerned about even more traffic diverting from Interstate 95 before the York toll plaza and taking Route 1 north through York and Ogunquit.
“You know how many people are getting off to avoid the $2 toll,” she said. “There will be even more gridlock on Route 1 in the summer.”
Her concern is shared by York Police Chief Douglas Bracy. In the summer, particularly on weekends, the traffic backup often causes small, rear-end accidents. Responding officers are often taken away from other responsibilities, he said. He’s also concerned about an increase in truckers who already use Route 1 to avoid the tolls.
“That’s just going to beat the roads up more,” he said. “It’s just transferring costs in a different way.
As Route 1 is a state highway, the Maine Department of Transportation maintains it.
“I’ve never seen Route 1 in such terrible shape as it is now,” Bracy said. “And you’re just going to increase the volume of truck traffic.”
Mills said he hears the concerns, and understands that people are upset. He said he’s already cut the MTA budget by 10.4 percent, and worked to reduce the interest rates on bonds. The only other alternative is to raise tolls.
Hill said she’s not convinced. She said the MTA needs to continue to squeeze its budget and rethink its financing.
“I think there are other pools of money,” she said. “The MTA board wants to do what’s best for their bondholders and not necessarily for the people of Maine.”