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Maine Turnpike board agrees on toll hikes

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Turnpike Authority tentatively agreed Thursday on a plan to raise tolls on the 109-mile highway, but delayed a final vote for two weeks.

The authority board voted 5 to 2 in favor of a plan that would increase cash tolls by rates ranging from 50 cents to $1 at plazas in York, Wells, Gray, New Gloucester, and West Gardiner. The plan would also raise rates for E-ZPass users by 10 percent and raise tolls for trucks.

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But the board postponed a final vote until Aug. 16 to allow staff to come up with exact calculations on how much revenue the plan would generate. The increases are scheduled to go into effect Nov. 1.

The plan results in lower overall toll hikes than the proposal that was first rolled out in June.

At that time, turnpike officials said they needed to raise an additional $26 million a year to cover the turnpike’s operating budget, maintenance, and long-term debt service. Of 10 proposed toll hike scenarios, the preferred option included raising E-ZPass electronic toll rates by 20 percent.

The board came up with a plan last month that would delay some of the turnpike’s capital projects so that the necessary toll increases would amount to a little over $21 million a year, allowing lower overall toll increases.

The increases approved Thursday would raise the tolls in York by $1 and in the southbound lane from Gray and the northbound lane from Wells by 50 cents. But the tolls at the New Gloucester and West Gardiner plazas would increase by only 50 cents, rather than 75 cents as envisioned under the initial plan.

The 10 percent increase in E-ZPass tolls means the cost per mile would rise from 6.7 cents to 7.4 cents on average, rather than to 8 cents a mile under a 20 percent rate increase.

To offset the smaller E-ZPass increase, the rates for commercial trucks would go up by varying percentages based on their size. In-state 18-wheelers using E-ZPass, for instance, would pay on average about 6 percent more than they do now.

During a series of public hearings on the toll hikes, a number of people complained about the inequities of the toll system, where motorists can pay vastly different rates per mile depending on where they get on and off the highway.

Board member Robert Stone voted against the plan in part because of the inequality.

It is impossible to come up with a totally equitable system in which all motorists pay the same per-mile rate, but the plan voted on Thursday should appease some of the critics, particularly in central Maine, said Peter Mills, the turnpike’s executive director.

‘‘We’ve done our best to accommodate them,’’ he said.

Even with the toll increases, turnpike officials said Maine’s toll rates are among the lowest in the country for both electronic toll payers and trucks.

Board members agreed that it would be smart to begin exploring the concept of an all-electronic toll system, as a number of other states now use on sections of toll highways.

All drivers paid the same amount per mile years ago, but that was when toll employees dispensed tickets and collected money at every exit. That required hundreds of toll workers and was costly.

Under an all-electronic toll system, there would not be any cash toll collections. Motorists with electronic payment devices known as transponders in their cars would pay one rate, while drivers without the devices would pay a higher rate. The turnpike authority would have to photograph license plates and send bills through the mail to motorists who didn’t have transponders, Mills said.

‘‘I can tell you one thing, the answer to equity is in the E-ZPass system,’’ Mills said.

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